TV That’s Fun For The Whole Family: All Ages Programming Serves No One.

October 23, 2002


Warning: Mature Content – Viewer Discretion is Advised.

This message was once reserved for only a few shows, back when television only ran adult-oriented material late at night or on weekends. Usually the program in question was a blockbuster movie or some other special event.

Today, liberal television standards allow adult content in earlier time-slots, and there is a lot more of it. New channels – particularly the specialty and digital networks – are not subject to the same strict broadcasting rules that effect basic cable, and they may run violent or sexually explicit material at all times of the day. Even the major networks are running more of these programs, especially late at night, and some are regular series. The Sopranos and The Sex Files are two very explicit programs that come to mind.

Some people lament the new television environment because too many shows are not suitable for children or teens. To placate these viewers, the networks have started putting content warnings on more shows, and they are also broadcasting ratings along with the programs so people with v-chips in their televisions can block adult material.

In theory this is a good idea, but it’s quickly getting out of hand. The problem is, it is impossible to make a program that is not offensive to anyone, unless television returns to the naïve and highly restrictive programming that we had in the 50s and 60s. I Love Lucy and Gilligan’s Island might have been safe for all ages, but people now spend much more time watching television, and accordingly, it must better serve our entertainment needs.

Networks, worried about backlash, have started placing warnings on everything. Many programs that have been running without warnings for years, such as professional wrestling, suddenly have them. Older cartoons, like Looney Tunes, are being edited in rerun – sometimes so severely that the original storyline is no longer discernable.

Warnings on programs are now being used far too liberally. I was astonished last night to notice a “?mature content’ warning preceding an episode of the British comedy, Fawlty Towers. Presumably if your television is programmed to block mature content, your children could not watch this show. It makes me wonder what they can watch? If Fawlty Towers has been deemed too mature for younger viewers, can a similar rating for Gilligan’s Island reruns be far behind? After all, the Skipper takes off his hat and hits Gilligan over the head with it in almost every episode, and Ginger wears low-cut dresses.

The truth is, television is filled with adult content, and much of it is not suitable for children. But what is wrong with that? Is television supposed to be a children’s medium? The vast majority North American’s are adults, and most watch quite a bit of TV. For years, adult entertainment was mostly sanitized and kid friendly, and I’m not sure that that is any healthier than making children watch adult programming all the time. Adults should have the opportunity to watch programs that they can relate to on an adult level. There is no reason to require broadcasters to make the entire television medium child friendly. We certainly would not expect the film industry to be limited to producing G rated films. Children, too, should be able to watch quality children’s programming.

To make this work, however, there must be a better segregation between adult and children’s programming.

Parents should find out what kids are watching, and take the responsibility to ensure that they only see appropriate shows. One option for this is to let the kids watch videotapes that have been pre-approved by the parents. Kids don’t need to be watching TV all day anyway.

Unfortunately, a lot of parents have no idea what their kids watch, so the CRTC and other broadcasting standards organizations feel that they have to take on a parental role and make sure that TV is “?safe.’ Because different parents have different limitations on what they want their children to see, we have ended up with the ridiculous warning system that is beginning to blanket everything on TV, and in the process is losing all meaning. Just as food manufacturers routinely put nut warnings on practically anything produced within 5 miles of a factory that uses nuts, TV ratings boards have decided to rate practically everything as “?mature’ just in case.

Sadly, it is probably necessary. There is a lot of evidence that parents have no idea what their kids watch. The fact that an adult-oriented cartoon like South Park is so popular with youngsters is ample proof. It’s a great show, but definitely not suitable for young children. Many parents, however, assume that anything animated is ok for kids.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to just put a disclaimer on all televisions and cable subscriptions, stating: Television is an adult medium, and is not intended for unsupervised use by children. Objectionable content may be broadcast at any time.

Something has to change, as the line between adult and children’s programming is becoming so blurred that soon neither group will be able to enjoy age-appropriate material.

Too often adult programs dance around adult issues, which are worked into the subtext using innuendo and humour. Many new sitcoms precariously straddle the child/adult programming line, to promote the idea that adults and children should be able to watch the same programs with equal satisfaction. Thus many of the new sitcoms are family based, with prominent stories that feature child-friendly humorous situations, over a subtler back-story that focuses on the parent’s marital issues.

The results are never satisfactory. It is demeaning to adults to have to pretend that sex and other adult topics are too shameful to talk about openly, and to have to resort to adolescent tactics to discuss these issues. Beavis and Butthead talk more openly about adult issues than most sitcom parents, who dance around explicit material like grinning marionettes. Children may enjoy the humour of these new programs, but do not need to be exposed to the adult subtext.

Children and adults have different needs, and it is not possible to provide entertainment that is suitable for both. Occasionally a TV series or movie does appeal to both [the Crocodile Dundee films have done this very effectively], but both groups also need programs appropriate to their own needs. One of the biggest complaints of parents is that they have a very hard time finding opportunities for real “?adult’ conversations. The naïve and unrealistic portrayal of adult relationships in most television programs does nothing to help promote healthy adult interactions.

Broadcasters and filmmakers, in their attempts to make fun-for-the-whole-family programs, have only succeeded in making programs that are not appropriate for either group. Films like Jurassic Park tried to add a child-friendly element, with very young actors and cushy dinosaur toys, but instead scared the hell out of young children with the adult violence. This movie should have been left as an adult film, but marketers saw an opportunity for more money by marketing the film to a wider age group. Star Wars started this trend, but failed to live up to its adult marketing due to the ridiculous and adolescent romantic interactions of the adult characters.

Films makers and TV scriptwriters have tried also to make children’s programming more accessible to adults. The result of this approach is that the last Lassie [a friendly and helpful Collie dog whose TV programs and movies are geared toward small children] movie released was rated PG [Parental Guidance Suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children]!? The film version of the Flintstones was also vamped with sexy characters that never existed in the original cartoon. Many new children’s cartoons also carry some surprisingly explicit sexual undertones that only adults are supposed to pick up on. Consider, for example, the bizarre sexual attraction that The Simpsons character Smithers harbours for his cadaverous employer, centigenarian Mr. Burns. Hilarious for adults, but is it really lost on kids? The Simpsons is not necessarily geared toward kids, but the same types of undertones are present in many programs that are primarily made for children.

Clearly the one-size-fits-all model of television programming serves no one. Many kids movies now contain so much adult material that they are not suitable for small children, and too many adult programs are so sanitized that normal adult talk and situations have become comedic fodder comprised of winks, nudges, suggestion and insinuation.

We need to draw a clear line between children’s and adult programming. Adults do not need to be able to enjoy children’s programs. Sorry moms and dads. Kids have different tastes, and you might find yourself suffering through a film you hate when you take your kids to the theatre. It comes with the territory. But then you can put the kids to bed and watch some satisfyingly adult material and remember what it’s like to have an adult conversation. This can only happen, though, when we start to realize that we have different needs, and stop trying to homogenize find a way to satisfy all ages at once. Does anyone really think that a 30-year-old can be satisfied by the same program as a 7-year-old?

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.

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