Steve Allen is riled about the state of pop culture in America.
The man who created "The Tonight Show," starred in his own TV variety show, and still acts, writes scripts, and composes music is himself an icon of that same pop venue. The long arc of his career is one reason he's turning heads with blunt comments about the decline of US culture.
Take 1: In an environment "bombarded" by media messages, he says, "it is almost impossible to escape encouragement to act in ways that have traditionally been the province of the libertine, thuggish, coarse, and depraved."
Mr. Allen's outspokenness, now being echoed at dinner tables across America after last week's massacre in Colorado, has landed him a role as national spokesman for the Parents Television Council. In helping the conservative group crusade for family-friendly programming, the comedian is both ad man and genial gladiator, confronting executives whose firms advertise on "vulgar" shows and whose TV stations air what Allen calls "classless garbage."
Leaning forward on the same white piano bench where he sits to compose jazz and pen lyrics, Allen derides the "anything goes culture" and insists that a broad swath of America is concerned about it, too.
"There's a tendency within the business to say, 'Well, it's just the religious conservatives,' " he says. "But I know believers, agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, all kinds who agree that things have just gotten too dirty."
Concern is mounting because "the filth" has "invaded the province of children," he says. Take 2: "We now have 12-year-old schoolchildren walking down the street blithely singing lyrics that advocate the rape and violent abuse of women, the killing of police officers, and other forms of social madness, while at home they watch animated and dramatic shows that feature moral disorder and tastelessness."
Indeed, the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council probably scored a coup last year when it enlisted Allen, whom British playwright/bon vivant Noel Coward has called "the most talented man in America." Author of 52 books, composer and lyricist of more than 7,800 songs, Allen won a Peabody Award for the PBS show "Meeting of Minds" and has been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Of this modern-day Voltaire, singer Andy Williams once quipped: "He's the only man I know who's listed on every one of the Yellow Pages."
Allen's voice may be the one that's helping to amplify PTC's campaign, but the long-running star says many of his comedic colleagues - Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Tim Allen - feel much the way he does about the growing coarseness in comedy and its effect on American entertainment.
"I have been hearing from colleagues who agree that the sleaze and classless garbage ... exceed even the boundaries of what has traditionally been referred to as going too far," he says. Allen singles out daytime TV's "Jerry Springer Show" (which parades dysfunctional people and relationships for laughs) and late-night's "The Howard Stern Show" (which traffics heavily in strippers, homosexuality, and alternative lifestyles).
Allen began speaking out about the cultural decline about 10 years ago, largely in response to audience questions about the growing tastelessness of public discourse. His 53rd book, "Dumbth," takes up the issue.
But besides talking and writing about the problem, Allen offers a fix: Put a spotlight on the advertisers of objectionable TV programming.
PTC has scrutinized 100 series offered by six national networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, and the WB), evaluating them for family-appropriate content. The study identifies which shows most often air objectionable content - and it also lists which sponsors support which shows.
The goal: to persuade viewers to send letters to CEOs of companies that underwrite "really objectionable shows." Such action "can induce guilt in these people," says Allen, who once asked media magnate Rupert Murdoch, "How come your stations are considered among the worst in the vulgarity race?" A CEO, he adds, "might say, maybe I can't change the human nature that induces people to watch these shows, but come to think of it, I guess we shouldn't sponsor show 'X' to the tune of $9 million. Maybe we can cut it to $2 million."
PTC's strategy has worked in the case of the "Howard Stern Show," Allen says. PTC faxed weekly transcripts of the show to CEOs of sponsoring companies, and some have dropped the show, as have 11 CBS affiliates, he says.
But the tactic is controversial. Some companies are listed as supporting both the most family-friendly and the least family-friendly shows. Moreover, the study, which rates shows across an entire season, does not account for the fact the some firms, such as Procter & Gamble, advertise on an episode-by-episode basis, says Gretchen Briscoe, Procter & Gamble spokeswoman.
"We are looking for more options to advertise on family-friendly shows," she says. "Part of the problem is that they are not being produced."
Others say PTC's campaign is a futile fight against market forces. Advertisers prefer shows that have some edge, they say, because those viewers are the biggest spenders.
Allen and PTC, however, insist it is imperative to make business executives aware of just how disturbed Americans are by television's programming slide.
Take 3: "You can get people to change by confronting them and appealing to their moral side."