Whether “fairy tales” or heroic adventure incorporating battles with monsters, fantasy-themed stories have been popular with readers of all ages for generations, but especially with children.
In the last two decades, the popularity and financial success of film series based on fantasy literature, like J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” book series, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” has inspired a greater interest in fantasy-based properties being adapted for use by the wider entertainment industry. This has resulted in fantasy-inspired programming becoming popular on television, as well – the most obvious (and influential) example being HBO’s adaptation of author George R.R. Martin’s epic adult fantasy book series, “Game of Thrones” (albeit not for children).
Given the popularity and lucrative potential of fantasy, it is understandable that broadcast network television would seek to capitalize on the trend, by creating derivative programming based on similar fantasy concepts.
But what the broadcast networks have created isn’t safe for its natural audience: kids.
A new Parents Television Council research report shows a troubling trend in recent TV programming: child-friendly fantasy franchises and characters are now depicted in a dark, “adult” manner utilizing graphic violence, sex, and profanity. In fact, young viewers were exposed to 625 profanities, 300 deaths, and over 1,000 incidents of violence in fantasy-themed prime-time broadcast TV shows.
Teen and pre-teen viewers were exposed to instances of decapitation, evisceration, dismemberment, cannibalism, dissection, crucifixion, impalement, and torture, along with hundreds of deaths and over a thousand incidents of violence. They were also exposed to hundreds of instances of profane language, as well as limited but often explicit sexual content … all on series featuring graphic, “adult” versions of otherwise innocent fairy tales and children’s fantasy.
It is hard to imagine an entertainment franchise more child-friendly than “The Wizard of Oz.” Yet on NBC’s reimagined prime-time broadcast version, entitled “Emerald City” and based on the Oz characters, a Dorothy character sexually stimulated the Tin Man using an oily lubricant.
On ABC’s “The Muppets,” the TV-PG-rated program featured profanity, depictions and references to alcohol and drug use, and multiple references to sex.
Disney-owned ABC network programs “Once Upon a Time” and “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” included a combined 306 instances of violence and 41 deaths. Also heard were 178 profanities – especially disturbing since these series were based on popular Disney fairytale movies like “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Brave,” and “Frozen.”
Keep in mind that these fantasy-themed TV shows were all rated by the networks as appropriate for 14-year-old children or younger.
With decades of scientific research demonstrating the harm to children from their consumption of graphic sex, violence and profanity in entertainment, this trend takes on even more urgency.
I hear from some parents that they don’t allow their kids to watch these shows, or even broadcast TV at all. But even if kids aren’t watching this content on broadcast TV, inevitably they may see it on cable TV reruns and on popular streaming platforms.
That’s why this trend needs to stop.
Greater separation should be created between inherently family-friendly and child-friendly franchises and explicit “reimagined” versions. Particularly where child-friendly franchises are involved, parents should reasonably expect derivative works also to be child-friendly. Unfortunately, the age-based content ratings assigned by the broadcast networks for these programs only reinforce the notion to parents that these programs are appropriate for their children.
Children are intrinsically interested in and attracted to fantasy-based storytelling. As such, TV network executives must act with greater responsibility by more carefully considering their unique ability to reach large audiences comprised of families and children. The broadcast networks should rededicate themselves to providing more family-friendly entertainment for all viewers.
Dr. Christopher Gildemeister is the head of research operations for the Parents Television Council (www.ParentsTV.org), a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment, and the author of the new study, “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore.”