Television viewers who sense that program content continues to be more violent and crass are not just imagining things. Big media corporations continue to degrade American culture with television “entertainment” that features material that should be considered inappropriate for a humane, civil society.
A recent study by the Parents Television Council found that violence and profane/indecent language have increased dramatically in the last ten years. For prime time broadcast programs rated TV-14, violence has increased more than 150 percent. Naughty language has increased 62 percent. Even shows rated as PG have seen increases in violence and profanity. The PTC reports G-rated programs are now virtually non-existent, particularly during ratings sweeps months, or periods when TV channels target larger audiences to attract advertisers.
Violent content in broadcast television includes the typical fighting and weapons, but also now includes dismemberment and occasional depictions of torture. Networks now include on-air words that comedian George Carlin famously joked about in 1972 as the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Television producers probably think they are liberating audiences from restrictive cultural standards, but have no sensible rationale for how increasing violence or gross language actually enhances society.
The PTC study focused only on over-the-air broadcast television content, which is supposedly still under the supervision of the Federal Communications Commission. Profane and indecent content on broadcast airwaves, by the way, is still technically against the law, but the FCC has chosen to look the other way. Besides, the video universe now includes much content that never goes “over the air,” and is delivered through cable or streaming services, media systems beyond
the FCC’s control. The edgier content of those non-broadcast program suppliers has surely influenced the broadcast outlets to lower their standards as well, creating a sort of race to the bottom.
John Landgraf, who oversees programming for Disney’s FX networks, spoke earlier this month to the Television Critics Association, reporting that 532 scripted shows were released last year. He expects even more to be produced this year, saying the booming growth is “just bananas” and that the growth of internet television services is dangerous in “that everything becomes junk food.” Big media companies, however, including Landgraf’s, are still quite happy to flood the market with mind-numbing and unimaginative nonsense, creating false viewing needs for viewers who passively zone out for hours at a time. It is a terrible sign of cultural insanity when Americans binge-watch television programs and then brag to acquaintances about how many episodes they watched over a weekend.
Television audiences are now splintered across many shows and many platforms. Viewing is now most often done in isolation, even under the same roof, as family members watch their own shows on their own devices. Television today serves no unifying function or cultural glue. Colleagues, co-workers, neighbors and family members have few common media experiences to share. It is little wonder that people who watch the most television are more likely to be depressed and detached. Television has never been good at building community and its limited ability to do so in the 1950s and 1960s has now surely disappeared.
The medium of television is now out of ideas, with recycled genres and plot lines just moving around the program lineup. Producers lacking creativity and an understanding of the American audience now simply flood the television sphere with the extra violence and bad language. They defend this empty strategy by claiming they are seeking realism in their shows. That dodge fails to recognize that viewers don’t come to television looking for realism. Consumers want content
that can demonstrate a more idealist version of society. In short, it is time for television to help guide and enhance culture as opposed to demeaning it.
The sociocultural philosopher, G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago that the greatest danger to a society is what he called “standardization by a low standard.” Television, instead of seeking a higher standard for its viewers, is today standardizing a cultural ill whose effects diminish our nation’s humanity. It is time for the nation’s television viewers to stop passively absorbing the cultural drug that is television and more consciously select shows with suitable content, or better yet, turn off the device and have a conversation with a friend.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University. Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_McCall