Talk Back to Your Television!

by the Rev. John P. Jackman

Though the average viewer is only dimly aware of it, 1999 has been a year of critical change -- much of it negative--in the television industry. Thus it was with joy that I read the Pastoral Letter issued by the Bishops of the worldwide Moravian Church* over the summer, which specifically called attention to the problems in the industry:

We raise that voice in alarm for the lowering, even outright elimination of moral standards and propriety in our societies, especially by the film and television industries and other media; we raise our voice in warning for the seductiveness of pornography and concern for the abuse of children, women and men in whatever circumstance. We express our Lord's call for repentance, for the people of God to walk the new direction of purity in thought, word, and action. The church has an opportunity to offer pastoral counsel and education for a responsible use of the media.

-Pastoral Letter, Moravian Bishops' Conference, June, 1999

Read What Other Denominations Say

The timing of this call could not have been better. It came almost exactly a month after the entertainment trade magazine Variety announced that the "Big Four" networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, had essentially pulled the plugs on their standards departments. "I don't know if there are any taboos anymore," says Carol Altieri, VP of program practices at CBS. Far from simply being a relaxing of standards or increase in permissiveness, the networks have made a policy decision which some have referred to as "negative censorship" -- if an 8:00 or 9:00 show is not shocking and sexual enough, it will be sent back. Variety corespondent Jenny Hontz reports: "In fact, shocking viewers appears to be one of the best ways to force channel surfers with short attention spans to stop, so one can only imagine where the current race to be the raciest will lead."

Actors in these programs have defended the rudeness of their programs by casting it as "artistic" and "creative," despite the fact that it is openly acknowledged in the trade that the changes were executive policy decisions aimed solely at increasing ratings. Although most of the focus this year is on explicit sexual descriptions and foul language, it is likely that the level of visual violence will be cranked up next season, as well. Whatever works to jolt open those jaded eyeballs.

Fortunately, the trend toward "bottom-feeding" TV has not been without some counterbalance, though not from the entertainment industry itself. It is by the advertisers, some of whom have begun a tiny little revolt. Disgusted by TV programs filled with sex and violence, 11 major advertisers announced that they will pay to have writers develop family-friendly shows for consideration by the WB network. The advertisers, including Proctor & Gamble, General Motors, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Sears, say they are taking the steps after finding fewer prime-time programs during which they feel comfortable selling their products. According to Andrea Alstrup of Johnson & Johnson, We were finding it harder and harder to find programming we can advertise in -- programs that families can sit down and watch together." So they formed an ad hoc group called the Family Friendly Programming Forum and began to talk to the networks. "We have basically gotten only lip service from most of the networks," said Alstrup. The WB Network was the only one to respond positively. Advertisers declined to say how much they are committing. It generally costs between $60,000 and $90,000 to come up with a script, and they've agreed to pay for at least eight. WB will supervise the development and decide which scripts go into production.

Added to this programming move is an accelerated consolidation of the broadcast and cable industry which is largely unnoticed by the public. Though cable TV appears to have great variety, many of the channels which seem to provide diversity and competition are in fact quietly owned by the same few companies. And this decrease in real diversity was accelerated in August, when FCC commissioners voted to relax regulations on ownership of TV and radio stations. The regulations had been designed to preserve diversity and to prevent monopoly in individual markets. The new, relaxed rules allow a single company to own two TV stations and up to six radio stations in any given market, and relaxes restrictions on ownership of other broadcast companies, allowing a company to also own a substantial stake in other (apparently competing) broadcast companies or cable operations. While this may at first produce only a yawn for most viewers, it means that a near complete communications monopoly is now permissible in most smaller markets. And this without any of the requirements for "public service" and "fair access" that used to govern local broadcast channels.

Ironically, this group of FCC commissioners had previously expressed concern about preserving diversity in individual markets, and had repeatedly stated that it would "resist all attempts by broadcasters to relax ownership limits." To push the mega-communications limits more, hearings are being held right now in Washington to consider relaxing the rules even further, allowing newspaper chains to also own cable, TV, and radio stations. This would mean that Rupert Murdoch could potentially own the newspaper, all the radio stations, both broadcast TV stations, and the cable system in your hometown. Just try getting a dissenting opinion on in that market!

So what can people of faith do to respond to the call that these Bishops have issued? First, support positive programming. When you see a great family show, call or write the network and advertisers with effusive praise quickly -- before it gets cancelled! Lobby your local cable company to carry The Odyssey Channel, if it doesn't already. When you see network programs that you feel really "cross the line," especially during hours that young children are watching, do something. Turn the TV off -- but let the offender know, as well. You could write the network, but TV pioneer Steve Allen says that's mostly a waste of time. He recommends writing to the national advertisers and complaining -- they are the ones who actually bankroll the program. And if you agree with me that diversity and competition in the media is a good thing, you'd better write your congressperson soon to express your opinion! But above all, talk to your kids and grandkids. Share your values with them, help them understand how removed television is from reality. Doet allow the tube -- and the basically amoral programmers who control it -- to set the standards for your family!

The Rev. John Jackman is Executive Director of Comenius Foundation (www. comeniusfoundation. org), a nonprofit dedicated to using the media to promote faith, learning, and love.

* This article first appeared in the October '99 issue of "The Moravian Magazine." The Moravian Church is one of the oldest Protestant denominations, founded in 1457. The Moravian Church seeks to focus on Christian Unity and to work in cooperation with other denominations.