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Clash of the Cultures
January 14, 2002

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Just when we thought it was safe to go into the living room, they're at it again. One broadcast network has signaled that it's basically going to abandon family-oriented programming. And two cable networks want to push the pay-TV envelope even further than they have in the past.

NBC's West Coast president, Scott Sassa, is pretty much telling television viewers who would like to see family-friendly programming that they'll have to go elsewhere. This is the same network, by the way, that ran to the front of the line to be the first to air hard liquor ads.

Meanwhile CBS, ABC and FOX seem to be moving in the opposite direction. ABC has announced that it's going to attempt to duplicate some of the earlier success it had with shows like "Home Improvement."

"According to Jim" and My Wife and Kids" are two of ABC's latest programs to have clear, recognizable family themes. And interestingly, both programs have been critically and commercially well received.

Similarly, FOX's "Bernie Mac Show," which comically portrays some traditional family values, has found a fairly good-sized audience.

CBS is taking a bit different approach. It's talking to Carol Burnett in hopes of arranging additional specials, since nostalgic television programming is experiencing what one top executive calls a "feeding frenzy." Classic television programming was given a push when CBS won the November sweeps with the assistance of its Carol Burnett and "I Love Lucy" specials.

Meanwhile, MTV and Showtime are starting a new cable TV channel that is certain to further alienate most traditional families. The two cable networks have confirmed plans for a gay-oriented television channel. It will be offered to subscribers for a nominal fee, like Showtime, but will use niche market advertisers, in the style of MTV.

Not so long ago, kids could safely watch TV during the family hour. Now the time periods when broadcasters know full well that kids are watching are routinely loaded with violence, foul language and explicit sexual content.

TV executives who participate in this type of assault must be living in the same cultural cocoon as the rest of the media elite. They are, unfortunately, so totally out of touch with their audiences that it's difficult to believe they will ever find their way back.

Sassa has to wonder whether NBC's failure to cater to the family audience will turn out to be a dreadful business decision. Stockholders and investors are sure to scrutinize viewers' responses to the opposite paths that the networks are taking.

It seems as though the entertainment and media communities are suffering from some sort of delusion that the majority of Americans view the world the way they do. The free market, though, has a funny way of setting the record straight.

If television executives persist in ignoring the needs and wishes of American families, free enterprise may be the hero that comes to the rescue. Those who seek more wholesome entertainment will find that they have plenty of alternatives available in the broadcast, cable and in-home technology world.

DirecTV, the largest satellite television provider in the nation, saw its numbers of new subscribers increase by more than 13 percent in 2001. This figure seems to indicate that many people are not all that thrilled with what the alphabet broadcast networks have been offering.

Those who do not want to go the satellite or cable route are not without options either, thanks to a steady parade of sophisticated new products.

A line of VCRs and DVD players was recently unveiled at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. The new technology allows the user to block up to 150 different offensive words and phrases. And "TV Guardian," a device made by the Arkansas-based company Principle Solutions, is also able to filter out vulgar speech.

Stay tuned. Bigger and better technology is sure to follow.

It's obvious to most people that a clash of cultures has been going on for some time now. The battle is being fought for adult minds and children's hearts.

Luckily, within our private domains, we continue to hold the ultimate control. We are able to choose what we watch and what we turn off.

When banded together, viewers are more than capable of teaching shortsighted entertainment executives a critical lesson in the law of supply and demand.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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