Scary Pictures: What Kids See on TV Print E-mail

20040826(San Diego Reader August 26, 2004)

Ten-year-old Olivia Palmer, a fifth grader at Pacific Beach Elementary, picks up the television remote, presses "on," and touches two numbers, 3 and 6, on the keypad. The TV goes to MTV's Real World. It's a program about real people being videotaped while they're doing real and really mundane things. One of which is to sit on the couch and watch reality television shows. Olivia knows The Real World well. Much to her parents' chagrin, she's seen its episodes dozens of times. Indeed, Olivia, who seems older than ten, in a way already aged by the media, has watched all kinds of shows: the new reality TV, music videos, horror films, programs like Lizzie McGuire (an old favorite) and That's So Raven (a new joy: "I'm into That's So Raven but not, like, into-into. I'm not obsessed with it") and her all-time favorite, The Simpsons, which, besides its goofy improbability, does, for Olivia, have a message: "Like, chill out and don't be so frustrated."

"The Real World is reality TV," she says. She points the remote at the screen. "That's the alcoholic woman. She has this really bad lung disease, and she still smokes. I think she's, like, 21. And the first night [of the show] she was, like, so drunk she couldn't even walk. She's an alcoholic." Why do you think they're showing us their lives? "I don't know why; it's just reality TV." For me, the program appears to have no other reason for being than the camera as voyeur. But for Olivia—whose medium-long brown hair has that tangled middle-part where chunks are unevenly pulled to one side or the other—The Real World does have a purpose. "They want to make [the show] so it's, like, different. And I bet this isn't the real girl. I think they made her, like, a total alcoholic." Do you think it's a "fake reality" show? "Yeah, because the producers and the writers edit it and stuff."

Olivia explains why the editors give people these exaggerated traits. "Well, because, like, they want to sort it out so they're characters. So she's the alcoholic. And then the other girl's the wild-and-crazy one. And that guy she's talking to"—that guy is drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag, probably beer, according to Olivia's theory. So what we're watching is a real part of their lives? "This isn't part of their lives. What they do is they pick people that they think are, like, good, from all over the country and from Southern California, and they put them in one house together. There are secret cameras everywhere. See that guy? They make him look like he's the nicest person. They're making him look even more nice" than he is normally, in his life. The scene shifts, and somebody is taking a shower. The body, though, is behind frosted glass doors.

This installment of The Real World, Olivia says, is brand-new. And yet she has the "performers" pegged already—whatever trait the person has in abundance (looks, habits, talk), the editors emphasize via editing. Olivia thinks critically about the characters' depiction. She likes the show as much as she likes to see through it. It's part of the cynical allure of TV for kids. To figure out its fakery. A calling few parents care to engage.

Another flick and we're at VH1, "the channel I watch." A promotional "biography" of pop diva Jessica Simpson, called Jessica Simpson, is playing. "She is, like, one of the popular people," Olivia says, "and she is, like, tortured, but, like, she really wanted to be a role model to other girls, but people didn't like her because of the way she looked. But when she was coming out to sing, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were coming out with their 'Oops!...I Did It Again' stuff."

Olivia presses the remote's blue button, which reveals the electronic guide. Here, there's information about the program we're watching—stars, story, rating. It says Jessica Simpson is rated TV-PG. I ask whether she got her parents' permission to view it. "Yeah," she says, "but I've seen this. I'm allowed to see PG stuff because, with me, it depends on why it's PG—if it's for violence, if it's for foul language."

If you see a show is rated TV-PG, would you go ask your mom or dad whether you could watch it? Olivia says, "I would see why it's rated PG"—the electronic guide explains the show's rating for age and content, such as TV-G, TV-PG, and so on; its genre, say, comedy or drama; and warning info: sexual situations, adult situations, adult language, violence—"and if I think it's interesting, then I can watch that. I won't watch anything that's, like, horror." With cable, Olivia's viewing possibilities seem endless and endlessly distracting. She does like Jessica Simpson.

"Have you seen The Newlyweds?" Olivia asks. "It's a program," she says, "that features Jessica and her husband, Nick." I confess I haven't. But I've heard that the cameras follow the couple around and show Simpson to be kind of dumb. "She's not dumb," Olivia says, "she doesn't think. The argument she had with her husband: 'Is it chicken or is it tuna?' And then they had buffalo wings, and she's, like, 'Oh, I don't eat buffalo.' " By now, such "Jessica Simpson" sound bites, spanning the globe, are known to, what? a billion people.

Suddenly there's a video of Britney Spears. "That's who Jessica is competing against," Olivia says. Jessica Simpson looks like Britney Spears. "Yeah, they all look alike. But now Christina Aguilera, she's dyed her hair black and she's gone, like, bad, and does drugs." How do you know she's gone bad? "Oh, it's obvious. [Her videos] are, like, dirty, and her butt is hanging out and stuff, and there's, like, a fight in there, and she's punching this girl out."

So you decided that this Christina Aguilera video was okay to watch?

"It was on the Top 20 Countdown. I didn't know it was going to be there."

Scrolling through the guide, Olivia spots an announcement for Rabbit-Proof Fence. "It's a true story about a girl my age," she says. "She's going on this journey and has to walk" 1200 miles, reads the blurb. It says TV-PG, adult situations. Olivia says she'll have to ask her mom or dad about it.

Next, Olivia finds an ad for the movie Holes. It reads, "A woman forces boys at a detention camp to dig holes. Violence and adult language, rated PG." "But it's not that bad," Olivia says. She's seen it. An example: "Like, one of the guys, he doesn't talk, so he throws the shovel at somebody." Does violence or adult language bother you? "Adult language—I'm used to it," she says. "Like, my cousins, they use bad words all the time. And their parents don't care whatsoever. And their parents even say that to them."

Back to Jessica. Is she the kind of girl you'd like to be?

"No. Like, I could be like her, but I wouldn't want to be her." What part of her do you like? "Her fame. And she has a really good life. And she's, like, really comfortable with the camera and stuff. Like, she's always happy, but she used to be pressured. She has a lot of money." Is that something you want? Olivia hesitates: "I guess I could use a lot of money." Anyone else? "I like Christina Aguilera because she has a really good voice."

* * *

On this Sunday afternoon, right before handing Olivia the remote, Olivia's mother Martha Kinkade said I could watch TV with her daughter. Kinkade and Dave Palmer, Olivia's father, are divorced, and they live in Pacific Beach apartments adjoined by a patio. Olivia lives half the week at Mom's house, half the week at Dad's. Kinkade owns a TV but refuses to buy a cable hookup; she uses her monitor only for videos. Palmer has the cable and a 36-inch TV. Olivia watches G and PG movies with Mom, sports and Survivor with Dad, and the forbidden stuff with her cousins. Both parents express dismay that Olivia has seen shows on MTV and VH1.

Kinkade hates TV and says without it on, she doesn't have to "process all this imagery that comes at me. My head is not all messy; it's cleaner." Olivia thinks it's "boring sometimes" at her mom's place without a TV. Olivia is often on her PlayStation 2, while Kinkade wants her to practice piano and read. She says Olivia mainly watches TV at her dad's house and is aware that at her cousins' home, Olivia has seen scary movies (like The Ring, where a dead ten-year-old girl walks out of a mirror). "That's not good at all," Kinkade says. "It's caused problems for her." She notes the most potent issue that's come up for her and Olivia is the "sexual connotations" in PG-13 movies. These things, she says, "Olivia doesn't need to be exposed to. She is anyway—at school, as part of our culture." Kinkade recalls hearing on a prime-time show a gaggle of seventh graders getting together to do homework. One girl said, "I'll bring the condoms." Such flippant jokes anger Kinkade. "It's not appropriate for me or for Olivia."

When Olivia was six and younger, and before Kinkade left the marriage, Kinkade felt her daughter was enslaved to consumerism. And TV played its part. Olivia wanted everything, many things directly from commercials. She never seemed happy, her mother says. "She thought something was wrong with her if she didn't get lots of presents at Christmas."

Dave Palmer's TV is tuned mostly to sports, though Olivia will watch some of her Disney programs on the 13-inch in her dad's bedroom. Palmer says when Olivia watches sports, he detects no "positive influence. When I was a kid, if I saw an athlete, I'd go out and emulate them. But she's definitely not like that. She's not very outdoorsy. I thought when she saw [televised sports] she'd want to do that, but she's a scaredy-cat, and these sports, she was telling me, are too much a risk for injury." She used to "idolize" the Lakers and Kobe Bryant—before the scandal. Right after her dad explained the charges to Olivia—"he had sex with her"—Palmer recalls, "She didn't want to have anything to do with him anymore."

Palmer is adamant: "I don't like her watching MTV." He says he'll be in his room or in the kitchen and he'll hear her "flip to it. I tell her that it's not appropriate for her to be watching that. I explained that The Real World is about twentysomething kids, and the problems they're facing is not what ten-year-olds are facing." According to Palmer, Olivia hasn't discussed the rating system or asked to watch anything rated TV-PG. But he does see himself as a "hands-on" dad who can "talk to her about everything. To me, we're in control of the [TV] situation. The situation is not in control of us."

* * *

We're in control. That's what many San Diego tube-monitoring parents say when you ask about TV in their family life. The kids, though, beg to differ. Because of their ages, preferences, and peer influences, children don't share Mom and Dad's worries about the media cosmos. Small children can barely talk about TV, they're so hypnotized. Older kids and teenagers are loyal to, but get bored with, their favorite shows, which they watch even in reruns (a huge percentage of cable TV fare). Parents react warily to TV, fearful of the unexpected. Their shock at TV content is reflected in the skyrocketing number of complaints received by the FCC about radio and TV programming—from 13,922 in 2002 to 240,342 in 2003. And this was before the Super Bowl! Nowadays, parents feel assaulted by television. Outrage over the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake raunchfest signaled that in its wake change would arrive. Sure enough, in early February, MTV removed its explicit music videos to the more "adult" slot, after 10:00 p.m. But by early March, the sexually graphic videos of Britney Spears and others were back in normal rotation. Thus, though parents—and a nation—complain, the complaints go nowhere.

Parents say they're exhausted from supervising the tastelessness, the violence, the sex, the commercials. Thirty-five years ago, Marshall McLuhan declared, "The medium is the message." Today's message is, an incessantly on medium of 75 to 100 cable channels must show some program. One father recalls that while channel-surfing one day he became "really depressed for my society. I went from The Man Show, with women jumping on a trampoline and [the men] looking up their dresses, to Anna Nicole Smith—just what was on. That there's enough people out there obviously watching this stuff made me feel depressed about our civilization." And TV executives also have an opinion: let's leave questions about television content to the family to decide.

One way to understand these views is to see contemporary TV as part of an environment of media and electronics in which families live. Within the family circle, it's not just the television that's on: the home has been overrun by PlayStations; by movies now viewed on home-theater systems; by the blue comedy of HBO; by the Internet, Walkmans, iPods, Game Boys. Families no longer find a world outside the home that these entities mediate, suggesting a tidy split between a world we know from experience and one delivered to us via screens. A bigger, murkier universe has ensnared us. One study found that kids 8 and over are locked seven hours a day in "media consumption." The average a kid 2 to 16 spends before TV has always been about three hours per day. But now add another four hours of Junior's life gone to all sorts of electronic interactivity, and time spent with machines far outweighs time spent with other people or the natural world.

* * *

John and Karen Zlatic are anxious about their children's media consumption. Husband-and-wife massage therapists, they work at home and recall, in the early lives of their three kids, that TV was important. John Zlatic says, "My own feeling is that when they're really young, even before language, TV can be a really good learning tool." But soon John was noticing how the commercials began to influence his kids. When nine-year-old Carly wanted a Barbie doll, they knew she'd been "watching TV—the doll came on, and she wanted it." Karen Zlatic says it's an age thing. "The younger the kid, the more they're influenced by TV." For six-year-old Thomas, "His Christmas list was everything he saw one day on a commercial." Says John, "Outside Sesame Street and PBS, I talk with the kids a lot about the commercials, what they're doing to you. 'They're making you want to buy what they have.' When I was a kid, these toys on the commercials did these great things. They looked really, really cool. Then you got them home and you said, 'Wait, they were moving by themselves on TV. You have to push them.' We try to educate them about consumer awareness."

When the kids were very young, John and Karen could watch Friends because the sexual suggestiveness was "over their heads." Then, one day, Friends lost the subtlety it once had, says Karen, and they turned it off. She believes the salacious messages had already entered the children's "subconscious. It influences them that way. Why allow it now, when they're children. Allow them to have that childhood for as long as possible."

Other programs became problematic. Karen calls The Simpsons "raunchy, not a child's program in my eye. It's adult humor." She abhors its political and racial slant. Though John disagrees about the show (sophisticated humor is something the kids should understand, he says), he and Karen became "more wary," previewing other shows the kids wanted to watch. That meant even more time. Once Thomas was in a preschool program that required parent participation, they adopted the director's suggestion. No TV during the week. Many parents have instituted this, and for good reason. It eliminates the discussion about TV watching and TV content after school and evenings when kids are doing extracurricular things and homework and families want to eat dinner together and talk.

In the Zlatic household, media watchfulness seems as sane as it does fearful. The Internet scares John the most. "That's going to be the most challenging thing, especially for adolescents. If we were 'lucky' when we were 14, we found a Playboy magazine. That was our exposure to sex. But now any halfway literate computer kid—it's everywhere. Every fetish, every deviance." The entryway for kids is an e-mail account. There, they get spam with sexual messages, which Zack, their 12-year-old son, is "instructed to delete." As for the rest of Zack's browsing, "Right now, I monitor it." Have you discovered anything? John says one of Zack's friends was with him on the computer in John's office, and the friend went to an adult chat room. "I don't think they actually went in, but just the fact that they were there was enough to sound the alarm."

In contrast to his parents' worry, Zack regards TV aesthetically, which is to say, he's evaluative and cynical. He often describes its shows as mindless, uninteresting, and duplicitous. "I don't like to watch TV unless I'm bored or there's nothing else to do." (No doubt it's a San Diego prerogative: our temperate weather accounts for less media addiction here than in middle America.) Zack often watches basketball games because he's playing the sport.

One Saturday morning, Zack and I find Teen Titans, on KSWB/Channel 69. "My brother really likes this. I don't like it too much. I think the cartoons are really bad—how they move and stuff. I really don't like the plots, usually." What's this show about? "They're just a bunch of superheroes and all this bad stuff happens and they have to save the world." In the episode, an African-American cyborg, who is a friend of the teens', is running low on power, so he needs his battery recharged. "That guy," a cloaked figure in his cyborg-repair-shop-slash-dungeon, is "the bad guy." He speaks with the demonic flatness of HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. "There's always an evil guy," Zack says. Zack calls it "not very exciting" and "predictable." The teen titans can fly, and one of them, a kid in green, turns into different beings. They are unaware of what's happening to the cyborg, when suddenly they're fighting some Joker-like nemesis—throwing bombs, dodging firestorms, making wry comments. Does that violence trouble you? "Not too much, because it's just crazy stuff. They don't do anything that would really happen."

Zack says he and his friends don't "act out" what they see on cartoons. But, he says, "some younger kids do. They like these shows a lot. Especially Pokémon. They usually play-fight, or it's always on their mind." The shows "have a magician like this who can do all these great evil things." Zack says his mother worries that his younger brother Thomas will be warped by these "showdowns." Your brother doesn't fight, does he? "No, not at all. He just likes it." Thomas becomes so hypnotized that "he doesn't listen to anybody else."

The cyborg is fighting back against the evil guy, who's trying to reprogram his mind to become his disciple. But the cyborg is resisting. He doesn't want to be changed. As the evil guy begins reprogramming the cyborg, I wonder aloud, Will he be saved? Zack says, "Of course he will." I can't help but notice the Barbie-like girl titan, whose appearance includes a very short skirt and well-developed breasts. At last, a tube-connected mind-meld joins cyborg and evil guy; for a moment, before cyborg is irrevocably changed, his life flashes before him. Evil guy's mind sees into cyborg's mind, sees how precious life is to the cyborg. He's overcome with emotion. Zack says, "Oh, happiness saved him. That happens a lot in these movies. Like Harry Potter." Cyborg gets up after the evil guy is vanquished, and "He's fine," Zack says. Then, in the denouement, cyborg doesn't take the evil guy to jail but brings him to the city park, where the teen titans are tossing the football. "He's going to play with this freak?" Zack says. Show over, and with nothing better to do, Zack and I giggle our way for another half hour through the sublime dumbness of Gilligan's Island.

* * *

During the 1980s, evidence began to coalesce about the bad effects of TV on kids: inattention at school, interference with homework, use of violence to solve problems, sleep disturbances and nightmares, overexposure to products (kids see between 15,000 to 20,000 commercials per year), and numbness or insensitivity in the face of dramatic real-life situations. A common refrain of the time was that people who witnessed an act of violence felt as though they were seeing it on television. Kids were watching a lot of tube—on average, three hours a day; some were watching six to ten hours a day. One study showed that the more kids watched, the more likely they'd have symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Though the national discussion was often steered toward television's potential to teach children valuable lessons and skills—largely because of the success of PBS's Children's Television Network—commercial stations seldom tried to follow PBS's lead. With broadcast television creating indelible memories for children of violence, trauma, and horror, Congress decided to do something. In 1990, it passed the Children's Television act. Among the act's several guiding principles are these three: that Congress had a responsibility to regulate the content of kids' TV; that children's TV viewing had "an overwhelming impact on their lives"; and that commercial broadcasters, who transmitted their programming over the nation's airwaves (this was before cable), must "render public service to children." In order to "serve the educational and information needs of children," Congress and the FCC, charged with enforcing the act's guidelines, required stations to air what they called "core programming."

Core shows have several basic requirements: They must be 30 minutes long; be shown between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.; be targeted to one of three children's age groups; and be identified as E/I—educational and informational—at the beginning of each show. E/I shows must also limit commercial time and do away with self-referential commercial content (a rule occasioned by shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose action figures advertised during the commercials were indistinguishable by young viewers from the show itself: thus was born, "We'll be right back after these messages"). To comply with the act, each broadcast station fills out Form 398, explaining why its E/I programs meet the standard for core programming. In 1996, the FCC toughened the act by requiring such programs to have "education as a significant purpose" and by adding the three-hour rule: run E/I programming a minimum of three hours per week.

What characterizes the content of an E/I program? The FCC specified that the content of such programming should further "the positive development of children 16 years of age and under in any respect, including the child's intellectual/cognitive and social/emotional needs." But, in a triumph of noninterference (some might say toothlessness), the FCC refused to approve that content: "It is the broadcast station—not the FCC—that has determined that a program is designed to educate and inform children." The FCC notes that a station, whose license must be renewed every seven years, "will receive staff-level approval of the Children's Television Act portion of their renewal applications" if the station complies with the three-hour rule. Though stations couldn't get around the three-hour rule, they could invoke the First Amendment to dispute the FCC's notion of whether a show's content possesses "education as a significant purpose." With the station and the show's producers determining the quality of a show's content, the FCC's guidelines are far more vulnerable to manipulation than one might prefer. The FCC won't discuss content with broadcasters, so it's up to the viewers to raise concerns about a show's education and purpose. Few, if any, viewers ever do.

What categories of shows further "the positive development" of kids? Prosocial and academic. Prosocial is about friendship, cooperation, self-respect, and the importance of diversity; academic offers instruction in science, history, math, and humanities. Animal shows that feature cooperating and ethnically diverse instructors satisfy both categories. Program directors and producers speak of targeting these programs—and their advertisers—to specific age ranges: 2 to 7; 8 to 12; 13 to 16. In most markets (San Diego included), programmers focus half of their E/I shows on the middle group of elementary school kids and a third on teenagers.

Where do these E/I programs come from? Most are syndicated, that is, produced independently from the networks. They are labeled by the producers to conform to the telecom industry's TV parental guideline: TV-Y for all children; TV-Y7, for those children who can "distinguish make-believe from reality"; and TV-Y7 FV, a "content rating" for kids seven and older in which Fantasy Violence "may be more intense or more combative" than other TV-Y7 shows. (A recent story in Newsweek, "Family TV Goes Down the Tube," quoted a media watchdog who believes many parents think FV stands for "family viewing.") Station managers preview shows and slot them at certain times of the weekday or on Saturday. Six of San Diego's eight local stations show their core E/I programs at 7:00 or 7:30 a.m. during the week, from 3:00 to 5:00 after school, and on Saturday mornings and afternoons. E/I programming is never aired during prime time. Prime-time TV is too lucrative to target to any audience other than adults, the largest group of viewers.

Cable TV networks are not licensed by the FCC because they do not use public airwaves. Cable is exempt from E/I rules. That exemption is unfair, says Robert Ramsey, vice president and general manager of KSWB. A former station manager of WGN-TV in Chicago, Ramsey feels that despite KSWB's "strong ratings" with kids, their viewing habits have "drifted" from broadcast to cable, where cable networks "specifically program 24/7 to kids." Children, Ramsey says, "don't know the difference between broadcast and cable." Indeed. Any cable viewer (like Olivia) can bounce from TV-G The Fairly OddParents, on Nickelodeon, to TV-14 Jerry Springer, on KUSI/Channel 51, where "strongly cautioned" viewers will find such carnalities as "woman says her boyfriend is a pig."

An affiliate of the WB network, KSWB's programming for children airs in the afternoons and on Saturday mornings. The station has no input in reviewing the network content or when it's shown. The station does program E/I shows for children weekday mornings. Ramsey, who's run KSWB for three years, says before he purchases an E/I show like Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, he asks the producers to "prove" that the series is what it claims. The producers provide some documentation (for example, child psychology reports), but Ramsey is always skeptical: "Does the research prove something, or does it come to a conclusion which is an opinion. I don't know." Stations submit quarterly paperwork to the FCC. If there were a question about their E/I claim, it would come up during the license-renewal period.

In San Antonio, Texas, a station labeled Jackie Chan Adventures as core educational. The station's "explanation," which typically the show's producers supply to the affiliate and the affiliate files with the FCC, states that Jackie Chan is "super in the way each of us has the power to be." Because of his "empathy," "strength," and "concern for others," "he is able to vanquish opponents and achieve amazing goals." Such a character may "inspire" children "to act proactively and heroically." In San Diego, KSWB, which shows Jackie Chan every afternoon, chose not to label it as core-educational and, instead, identified as E/I Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century and three other shows. Does it make any sense that one station saw Jackie Chan as E/I, while another did not? Ramsey's response is, "We identify the things that are identified to us, and that makes us feel comfortable to say it's educational and informational." He says stations differ. Where one sees "educational," another might see "pure entertainment."

I wanted to know whether KSWB shows like Jackie Chan Adventures, Teen Titans, and Yu-Gi-Oh! are not given an E/I rating by KSWB because they contain violence. Ramsey says such a question opens a can of worms—defining violence. He says, "Since people began programming to children, this debate has raged, from the Three Stooges to superheroes." Does Ramsey himself feel such shows are violent? He says, "Your opinion of violence is valid for you. I don't want to sound like I'm parsing words, but the word 'violence' is a buzzword. Violence doesn't have a positive or a neutral connotation. You have in your mind, and everyone has in their mind, a definition of violence. Whether it's fantasy action or whatever, I don't want to say that everyone's interpretation" will always be the same—"a riot is violence, a fight in the street is violence."

Ramsey refused to label any particular kids' show violent. Moreover, he recalls no one ever complaining about so-called violent content of the KSWB's children's programming: "What's appropriate in an individual household is not my decision. I cannot tell any home what's appropriate, and God help us if the television industry or the federal government or whatever tells us. The moral compass of the home is the family, not the television. As a television station, the one thing we try to do is to please as many of the people as we can. Give them something that they want to watch. It does us no good to tick people off. If I get a viewer upset, that viewer's not going to watch us. If they don't like a show, they may not watch us. But if we upset them—because we are one of many [stations]"—viewers can go elsewhere.

And yet, almost every parent I spoke with complained that action-adventure cartoons are too violent. For decades, innumerable studies—among the most celebrated are reports from the surgeon general's office in 1972 and from the National Institutes of Health in 1982—have linked television's depiction of violence and the incidence of violence among children who view such programs, a connection that one researcher wrote is "undeniable and incontestable." In 2000, the Annenberg Public Policy Center issued a report that found a more responsible TV environment for children than the center's previous study had found. Still, the report concluded that the Sherlock Holmes cartoon, one shown daily on KSWB, was violent, using "intentional and/or malicious threat[s] of physical force or the actual use of such force."

For Ramsey, such reports typically present opinion, not fact. "Unless there's a list produced by the government," he notes, "that says these are the shows which we [the government] accept, anything that regards an opinion is going to have people on both sides." Some people, he grants, will find that what KSWB calls appropriate for one age range of children is not suitable for all kids. "It's the parents' decision, not ours." Television, he says, is "the ultimate democracy. We program what the audience wants, and if they don't watch it, we don't program it."

* * *

What recourse do parents have about programming they find offensive for their family? Short of V-chips or channel-blockers, little can be done about cable shows. As for FCC-licensed commercial TV, parents might clamor for greater disclosure to the TV-listing agencies, which could but don't carry the E/I label. The FCC guidelines state that stations must provide a listing of core programs to "publishers of program guides," but there is no rule that these publishers have to include an E/I symbol. (Some have said that stations won't list the E/I label because kids equate educational with boring.) The company to whom many local stations send their program listings is Chicago-based Tribune Media Services, which includes E/I labels in its database and makes that information available to print and electronic TV guides. Jennifer Casolaro, executive director of marketing for Tribune Media Services, tells me it's "common knowledge" that the E/I is available: any print or electronic publisher can request the information and include it in its publication. Many do; many don't. Those who don't, she says, usually cite space limitations.

None of the print or electronic-guide publications in San Diego uses the E/I icon. Patrick McGrath, editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune's TV Week, was not aware that E/I labels were available from Tribune Media Services. Besides, he says, getting another icon into the guide would require a "sledgehammer." No one has ever requested his publication list the E/I label or, for that matter, the TV parental guideline. At Time Warner Cable, a spokeswoman says she's never heard of E/I programs. At Cox Communications, media manager Judith Morgan Jennings disputes what Tribune Media Services offers as "common knowledge" within the industry. A three-decade veteran of broadcast TV, she knew nothing about the E/I label. After asking her media contacts, Jennings discovered that only TV Guide knew about E/I—the famous publication once carried its icon but doesn't anymore. She, too, has received no requests from viewers to list it.

The FCC guidelines also state that stations must identify each E/I show with an on-air statement or icon at the beginning of the program. A check of local E/I shows reveals that most stations do display the icon for five seconds. In the upper-left corner is the TV parental guideline (TV Y7, for example) and in the lower-right corner is the E/I icon. KNSD/Channel 39 has it inside the bobbing jaws of a shark.

Because local print and electronic guides don't include these icons and because the stations have not educated parents about E/I shows, the E/I option is largely unknown in San Diego. No parent with whom I discussed family-viewing habits had heard of the FCC rules for children's educational and informational programming, and stations receive few, if any, requests by parents to inspect their public file about such programming.

Two San Diego stations are not licensed by the FCC because they are owned in—and broadcast from—Mexico: XUPN/Channel 13 and XETV/Channel 6. Consequently, neither station has to follow the Children's Television Act. XUPN is a house of reruns, and it broadcasts programs specifically for young children on Sundays, 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. XETV, an affiliate of the Fox network, shows the Fox Box, a Saturday-morning block of cartoons from 7:00 to 11:00.

I asked Bay City Television vice president and general manager Richard Jones whether XETV or XUPN, Bay City's stations, serve the educational or informational needs of children, a federal obligation the six commercially licensed stations in San Diego must adhere to. Jones cites Life Lessons, a documentary about real-life problems like alcohol and drug abuse that teenagers face. Each year XETV produces two one-hour and several half-hour programs that are supported by study guides and shown in local middle and high schools. Life Lessons, which Jones started two and a half years ago when he began working at XETV, has won numerous awards, among them a Golden Mike and an Emmy. Jones calls Fox Box "kid friendly, but it's not E/I." Shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Shaman King, and Sonic X are labeled FV for fantasy violence. About these, Jones says, no one has ever complained to him or his program director, Deirdre Keane. He says the cartoons generally are "in no instance number one" in the Saturday-morning ratings; several of the shows were "tied for last" during the November 2003 sweeps period. I asked Jones whether such low ratings troubled him.

"At one time they might have, when 90 percent of children's programming was the domain of broadcast TV. Kids were the first demographic group to begin watching cable," because they could tune to Nickelodeon day or night, and it was branded as their channel. Today, Jones says, he's doing "incredibly positive things for the community" with Life Lessons and other informational shows, which is a "more efficacious use of our time than to compete with the onslaught of 24-hour-a-day [programming] for kids." Both Jones and Keane say there is little programming, E/I or otherwise, that's produced for children and offered for XETV to purchase. According to Keane, KSWB and other local stations, who are "scrambling to meet their E/I requirements," have snapped up "all the quality kids' shows."

Besides, Jones says, even if XETV and XUPN were compelled to show E/I programming, kids wouldn't watch it. Speaking of his eight-year-old son, Jones says, "I could not—even under threat of physical force—force him to watch this E/I programming." Television has "changed dramatically" from that which Jones's older children used to watch when they were eight. "This is the biggest problem. The kids all want to grow up, get older; they don't want to view the really soft, soft shows. They're just not interested in them. If it isn't entertaining, they won't watch it. Especially the boys. You might have half a chance with the girls, but the majority of kids' programming is directed to boys."

As an example, he cites the "whole Yu-Gi-Oh! craze." Marketed with trading cards to boys, "It's very hard to stop" such crazes because "trends and fads" affect kids the most. As for parental guidance, Jones notes, "For many years, when my kids were really young, my wife and I had them mostly watch videos that we controlled, rather than television. And I'm in television. Everything follows the money," Jones continues. "If stations could figure out how to make every E/I show the standard, that would deliver large audiences and make money, they'd do it." It used to be that way before cable, before the WB and UPN. Then, of the total revenue for Fox and independent stations, kids' programming was close to 20 percent. "Now," says Jones, "it's virtually nothing."

* * *

Many parents said XETV's Saturday-morning lineup and KSWB's weekday-afternoon shows contribute little or nothing to the "positive development of children 16 years of age and under." (These two stations were singled out more often than the local ABC, CBS, and NBC affiliates and the independent KUSI for carrying objectionable kids' fare.) As a result, these parents are on guard, their moral shields raised. Those over 40 are nostalgic for an age when one might put a child in front of the TV and feel that nothing bad could happen.

Terrie Relf monitors her 20-inch Teknika while seven-year-old daughter Willow plays and watches the set on a large futon couch every day after school. "We can't turn it off or we'll lose the Cox signal," Relf says. "If we do, we'll have to wait 10, 20 minutes to get a signal again. So we leave it on." When they're not watching, they mute the sound and "turn it to face the wall." Willow goes from being transfixed by a TV show to playing with her Barbie, to showing me her video stockpile, to paging through activity books and finishing her bean-and-cheese burrito on a SpongeBob SquarePants plate. On occasion, the TV may be background while Willow and Mom do art projects or cook. But since the TV's going most of the time, Willow says, "I watch whatever's on. Every day." (Willow does go to school, play with her friends, and visit her Japanese grandmother regularly, where the TV is most likely to be on baseball.)

Willow likes what's on Disney—That's So Raven; Lilo & Stitch; Sister, Sister; Dave the Barbarian; The Legend of Tarzan—and the Toon Network. On Sister, Sister, Roger has been hit by Cupid's arrow and he's singing to Tia below her window. Willow says, "It's just like Romeo and Juliet." You know that story? "I love that story," she says. A commercial comes on, and Willow clicks on the guide. She scrolls through what's coming, movies and shows whose titles she recognizes. It seems she's seen everything, movie or TV serial. She reads to me about Fillmore, the story of some safety patrol kids who solve crimes, which, she says, "I love."

Relf is always there when Willow is watching, so she knows her daughter's preferences. She tells me (when we speak later over coffee) that every so often she just turns off "the Disney crap." She's offended by "sappy kids who are always smiling, and everything's always so positive. I like Raven and Lizzie McGuire, but, in general, it's the way they package the [other] shows. It's Up with People; everyone gets along; everyone has enough money for everything; every problem gets solved. It's unrealistic." Relf is aware of the "mixed messages" the Disney shows send to girls. "Be smart, but still be goofy. Be athletic, but it's okay if you're a bit of a klutz. Hide who you are from others, but don't hide who you are from others. And it's okay to be a little overweight, but if you are, you'll be the weird kid." Relf likes That's So Raven because Raven has an edge: she's psychic, the family is kooky, and Raven and her mischievous friends often form cliques. Which provides an opportunity for a Relf family talk about why cliques are bad.

After watching several shows and scrolling through the guide, Willow becomes bored. With the futon as support, she makes clocklike poses with her body. She shows me her guitar: "My brother and my dad are giving me lessons." Her brother Brandon is a drummer who's also been teaching her to play. Willow arranges four pillows on the futon and beats them fiercely with her sticks.

We find Jackie Chan Adventures, and right away Willow says she likes it. "He's a kung fu fighter, and he looks like my dad," who is Japanese. "He fights bad guys. His enemy is called Daolon Wong. His niece is Jade." Where does this take place? "Everywhere," Willow says. "He's really an archeologist, but he still fights crime." In this episode, the plot is built around a girl character who, as a temple guardian, changes into a monster whenever an intruder enters. Five minutes in and Willow and I are glued to the action—the monster has a dozen tricks for attacking Jackie and Jade, who must be creative in fighting back. The pair aren't strong enough, so they need to outwit the monster. Lots of Jackie and Jade running away, lots of things crashing with metal-rasping sounds, lots of "oh no!" moments when Jade is trapped by a crashed rafter or faced with an oncoming boulder. Lots of Jackie standing and fighting. Lots and lots until the final confrontation, when Jackie releases some "fung chow mojo," a typhoon of powers that discombobulates the monster and—well, you can guess the rest. The last thing Jackie says to Jade, after their way-cool battle in the temple, is, "Ancient wisdom: Wise monkey know when to stifle spirit of adventure and concentrate on schoolwork." Jackie's as much fighter as spoiler.

I ask a mesmerized Willow what she's thinking. "When I watch TV, I pretty much [think about] nothing, nothing at all." Your mind goes blank? "Yeah, I forget about everything, and I just start watching it." Willow, who's been studying kung fu for two years, tells me she has never used kung fu to fight or defend herself. In her class, she says, "We practice fighting each other." But in the show they really were fighting each other, weren't they? "Yes, but that's just a cartoon."

One day, Willow announced that she wanted to quit kung fu. Why? her mother asked. "Because it's not normal," Willow said. "I want to be normal." Relf says, "Something on the TV or somebody at school triggered that. So then we had a big discussion about what's normal." The subject of not fitting in to the norm is a painful one for Relf because, while growing up, what she saw on TV, "I knew wasn't in my house." It's also painful because, as a part-time teacher and a poet, she has trouble making ends meet. She recalled a similar experience with her son, Brandon, who's now 25. When little, Brandon saw things on TV that intensified his and his mother's feelings of inadequacy. Relf paraphrases what she had to tell him over and over: " 'No, we don't live in a nice house; no, Mommy doesn't have a lot of money; no, Mommy doesn't have a boyfriend or a husband.' I wonder how many of these things Willow thinks about—'I want that, I want that,' those 1-800 call-in products, 'I want that.' "

This war against the underclass, Relf says, no one discusses. It's a war against those who don't have or don't aspire to have what television's upper-middle-class families have. (Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls is a teen reality show in which pairs of girls and boys are given $5000 to make over each other's room.) Relf tells Willow, who's seen commercials that show little else but kids possessing things, "In your life, you're going to run into people who care only about how they look, what kind of house they live in, what they wear—and I think that's superficial. Willow says, 'So do I.' But then she says, 'I still want it.' "

* * *

The television in Sue Vespremi's home is part of her family room's entertainment wall, which also has a PlayStation 2, VCR and DVD players, three sagging shelves of videos, a tall shelf of sports trophies, and three bookshelves. There's a foosball game, an upright piano, and a moosh, or beanbag chair, for TV lounging. This room is where she and her kids—Barbara, 18; Alex, 14; and Miko, 12—watch the tube, fold laundry, chill. It also doubles as Vespremi's office for her home-based medical transcription business. Often as she transcribes audiotapes, she keeps an eye on the TV. The tube's placement is strategic: it's for family togetherness. The 47-year-old says the girls "have begged for a TV in their room, but," her voice flutters with laughter, "nothing doing."

Vespremi says her kids "want the TV on a whole lot more" than she did while growing up. "It's almost like 'come home and turn it on.' They need to unwind." Unwinding on the couch, Alex has a flighty relationship to what's on. After dinner, she says, "I go right to MTV because I like watching music videos, but when it's only music videos, I want to change it because it gets boring." She "switches out" to the Disney Channel, ABC Family, Nickelodeon, then returns to MTV. Eventually she settles on a rerun of Full House, which she'll often do: once, she vegged all day with a Full House marathon. She and I watch an episode that dramatizes concern for those with Alzheimer's; its message is, while they're losing their minds, we'll suffer because we can't help but grow attached to them. Finished, Alex is off to shop.

Miko's in his moosh, tabulating the dollar worth of his baseball card collection; it's now up to $173. Like his mother, he's a multitasker, looking for a show on the guide and counting his cards, each one preserved in tight plastic. He sees The Simpsons and is pulled in for a bit, then cruises to The History Channel and describes for me a recent episode about men who escaped from Alcatraz by making a raft out of inflated clothes. Next, he switches to his favorite, SpongeBob SquarePants, but realizes he's seen it before, saying, "This one's funny," then clicks it off because his mom reminds him that he said he was going to practice his piano at least once today and twice tomorrow, since tomorrow there's no school. "Oh, yeah," he says.

Vespremi tells me that Miko recently spent a night at a friend's house where the family rented an R-rated movie. Miko called for permission. "He knows to call." Once he described the content, she was satisfied the movie would be okay for him. "Even when I did give permission, I said --" and here Miko had interrupted her, repeating Mom's admonition, " 'This isn't a real situation; this doesn't happen in real life.' "

When the girls turn on MTV and Miko's in the room, Vespremi will ask that they change it. It carries "the wrong message for a 12-year-old boy. There's a lot of sexual innuendo, women in scant clothing. I just don't want him thinking that it's socially appropriate—that's how women behave, or that men treat women that way. Because he's in a house full of women right now." Does she object that Barbara and Alex watch MTV? She doesn't mind. They already know not to "dress or act that way. I've talked about it with them too. I think Miko is still getting opinions" about boys and girls. As far as TV restrictions go, she says, "If I forbid it, they'd want to see it even more." She believes the girls don't take the videos seriously. "They listen to music far more than they watch TV."

Vespremi abhors violence, particularly the gratuitous kind, as in The Terminator, which she didn't see, or in cartoons with superheroes. "What makes violence so super?" she asks. She'll tell Miko from her computer perch to turn off anything violent. Why? She has a story. When Barbara was three years old, Vespremi bought a video that featured cartoons and advertised itself as The Best of Disney. Vespremi watched the half-hour video with her daughter and was abhorred at Barbara's reaction. "She'd be so excited and nervous," Vespremi recalls, "after she watched it. I started paying more attention to the video, and it seemed like every clip had some act of violence. So I wrote a letter to Disney that said, 'Of all the wonderful movies that you've done, why have you picked these violent scenes as the Best of Disney? because I think it changes the behavior of my child after she watches it.' They sent me my money back. But that was the first instance in which I thought [the show] created a different persona" in Barbara. "I don't want [my kids] ever to think that violence is the way to solve anything. To tell you the truth," she goes on, "I would prefer having them watch sexual things on MTV rather than violence. Because sex is a more natural thing; you see it everywhere. If you talk about it and put it in the right perspective, I think [sexual content] is not so bad."

* * *

Max Roop, 13, comes home from school to the familiar safety of his family's 52-inch Toshiba TV with digital cable. He turns it on every weekday and watches until bedtime, with or without his mom and older sister in the room. He admits he's a "media junkie," a cartoon addict. Sixteen-year-old Chelsea likes Court TV, with its forensic focus and blood-spatter analysis. Forty-year-old Star Roop, the mom, lets Max and Chelsea watch what they want. "If they see something that they feel is inappropriate, they've always been able to say, 'This doesn't interest me,' and they change the channel." Roop says she's never been shocked by what's on TV. She says both kids are "smart enough to know what feels uncomfortable to them." Has Chelsea ever seen her family represented on television? "Absolutely not." TV families, she notes, are either "messed up or perfect."

But it doesn't bother her. The "falling apart" families on Lifetime—"the old ladies' channel," Chelsea laughs—the Roops find absurd. Star is loyal to several sitcoms, but she also bristles at their hype: "They own that house? She's a waitress and he's a UPS driver? There's no way I could afford that—they're obviously not in San Diego." Chelsea sees no "bad effect" from her TV viewing. Except for forensics, "It's a fake world" that TV shows. Besides, she continues, the TV runs on in the "background" of her life. "Sometimes," Roop says, "it's on, and there's nobody in the room watching it." Chelsea objects to her mother and brother's reality shows like The Littlest Groom, a version of The Bachelor for "dwarfs" (or little people), calling such things "stupid." She rolls her eyes while Roop defends the show by saying, "Max and I watch it for comedic value." Again, they laugh over these guilty pleasures: whether they indulge or avoid or criticize the box, mom and son agree that yes, it's moronic, but we watch it anyway.

Perhaps television's genius is to appeal to our inner moron. To treat us like kids who don't know enough to turn it off. To be programmed so we'll watch, and if we don't watch, to search for something that we will watch, which amounts to a conspiratorial clawing at our time on behalf of what is so often—not to all but to most viewers—useless products (sugar-frosted flakes), useless information (panda births), useless intrigue (Scott Peterson and Amber Frey). In the Roop household, in the Vespremi and Relf and Zlatic households, television appears incapable of offering shows that matter. Even by televising programs about the "real world," about young people who have "real" problems with friends, parents, and themselves, the medium still does not (cannot) engage what is important to the families it claims to serve. In the homes of these families, the programs they watch are seldom, if ever, tools for education, self-betterment, problem-solving, community involvement.

On the contrary.

Many say that television is antagonistic to those things; it is seen as a foe, a worry, an embarrassment, a soul-killer, as far less personally fulfilling than reading a book, having a conversation, playing the piano. For families, the medium fosters illusions that few people can counter—that the world outside the home is more violent and terror-filled than it actually is or that difficult emotions, gender roles, and career hopes can be addressed by a dramatic TV series that portrays high school romance or small-town individuality. I wonder whether television executives and producers know just how low parents' opinions of the medium are—despite the fact that parents allow the set in their homes, rarely complain to the stations, and, in effect, blame themselves for the TV's ubiquity in their families' lives. It's good to ask questions of people who are trapped between what they choose to watch and what they wish were better. Why can't families turn the TV off when they know how violent and distracting and moronic it can be? Why do mothers and fathers turn on the TV when they disdain and switch away from its commercials, when they deride or abhor the content of the programs? Why do families whose interests and values are not represented on television continue to think that the medium is capable of even speaking to them?