U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo takes on the popular culture in a frequently provocative and challenging way. Some of his writings have been compiled into books, Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police (1998) and How the Russians Invented Baseball and Other Essays of Enlightenment (1989). Leo formerly covered social sciences and intellectual trends for Time magazine and The New York Times. He spoke recently with Register Radio News correspondent Rich Rinaldi about the sordid state of today's television.
Rich RinaldiI: What's your opinion of the new fall season, overall?
John Leo: There has been a giant leap toward bawdiness, vulgarity and coarseness — perhaps one of the biggest leaps TV has ever taken.
Bill Bennett and Sen. Joseph Lieberman gave what they call the “Silver Sewer Award for Cultural Pollution” to Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox network.
I think that Fox and, to some extent, HBO, Showtime and WB — TV's newcomers — have been the chief perpetrators of the coarseness. They are going for the teen and young adult market and they think that an in-your-face, transgressive attitude is what's going to get them an audience.
A few years ago you couldn't have imagined this kind of programming, and you could hardly imagine a show like “The Brady Bunch” in today's climate.
Some of today's creations are so coarse we would not want to discuss them. It's just a barrage of very bawdy scenes and images. Some of this comes from a couple of movies that had very gross sex jokes and made a lot of money. In some cases, TV is aping that “success.”
The feeling is that all standards and all rules are gone from all media, whether it's TV or movies or whatever. Any kind of attempted intervention to halt this tide is called illicit censorship. As a result, Bennett and Lieberman are right in their imagery — there really is a lot of sewage on the tube right now.
In your writing you've used the term “wall-to-wall sex” to describe TV, especially in the way it's being marketed to teens purely for profit. Why do you think they're intent on selling this kind of content to kids?
Some of it comes from really believing the point of view that says sex and foul expression are out of the closet and here to stay; it says, “This the way real people act.” This mind-set infects even potentially good shows. For instance, “Friends” is, at times, really very witty and funny. Yet everybody on that show jumps in the sack with everybody they meet, often just a few seconds into the show. This teaches young viewers an ethic of a kind of a casual, nonsense view of sex — like it's morally nothing more than a handshake. Of course, in real life, it involves many other emotions and passions and c ommitments and responsibilities. Yet those aspects never appear — it's just a wandering set of 27-year-olds going from bed to bed. If that's your view of life, you're an adolescent forever, I think.
It also seems as if parents are almost always absent from young peoples’ lives in these shows. And when they do appear, they're often portrayed as stupid, deceitful, cruel or simply impossible to relate to.
A lot of this starts with the companies that market their products to teens. They want to create a teen market detached from the adult market. Once you sell products that way, you know, “Don't let your parents know what your wants are — you can buy it for yourself,” the entertainment companies then also have to produce shows that complement those commercial messages. That means they have to show a teen world that it has its own values and its own monies, totally apart from adult values and monies.
“Dawson's Creek,” for example, which teen-agers seem to love, has all these absent parents, parents who are adulterers or in jail. The parents are always saying stupid things that annoy the teen-agers. Occasionally you'll see a grandparent being wise because they are harmless and don't inflict any discipline, but otherwise all these teens are on their own. The message of these TV shows is that adults are either oppressive — they try to make you adhere to old-fashioned rules that make no sense — or they are irrelevant. It's a vision of a world that would be a much better place if teen-agers ran it.
It's interesting that they go after teens’ money with such gusto.
It's called “market segmentation,” and it shows how runaway capitalism can contribute to an anti-traditional stance in morals and ethics. If you're trying to sell things directly to teens, you don't tell them that they have to listen to their parents. As we said, the show has to support this. The show and the commercials go hand in hand. Conservatives often miss this point — they tend to think there's this culture war going on, when actually much of the problem has to do with commerce.
Do you think it's a good thing to put pressure on people like Rupert Murdoch in the way Bennett and Lieberman did?
Yes, I really think so. We have to try and stop this. In the early part of this century, the primary teachers of young people were parents, school-teachers and clergy. Today the “teachers” are often celebrities.
When you watch one of these sitcoms as a teen-ager, you're not just laughing along; you're learning how to place your parents and other adults out of your world. The message is, “They really don't have much of a role in your life. Parents are irrelevant, so you run your own life.” This is repeated night after night — and, in the sitcoms, by the way, the kids always have a snappy one-liner ready whenever the adult says something. In other words, these clever kids are constantly putting down parents and other adults; the smart-aleck kid is the staple of the modern sitcom. He or she models enviable ways to defy tradition and family, and comes right into your living room to do it.
That's the part the parent can do something about — just don't let these bad role models in.
I think so, plus I think you have to be able to separate the trash from the shows that may be mostly good but contain some elements you don't like. You have to be able to sit down with your child and say, “I'm not going to demand that you not watch this show” — that may make it more glamorous — “but I have to tell you why I object to it and what I think you should look out for.”
The very young child you can easily tell not to watch, but it can be very hard to control a teen's viewing habits without raising conflicts that may cause other relationship problems.
For one thing, they may feel humiliated if they are told not to watch while all the other teens are watching. What you can do is point out the poisons and toxins in the show — often they will listen to that, and, even if they don't look like they understand or agree, some of it will sink in.