Talk television has reached such an abysmal state that shock jock Howard Stern, who will be bringing his unique style of free speech to CBS-TV with a new late night show on Saturdays, noted with appropriate irony: The standards of television have gone to an all-time low, and I’m here to represent the change.
It’s gotten so bad that commercial broadcasters are scrambling to find ways to save the dignity of their medium. ABC President Bob Iger, at the recent National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, urged his peers to exercise greater responsibility in choosing what they put on their air. Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman followed up with a letter to the president of the NAB underscoring their profound concerns about the modern state of American television, singling out The Jerry Springer Show. For the uninitiated, Springer is the talk show host who instigates all manner of battle for the unwashed masses. A primer on incivility, his show has become the closest thing to all-star wrestling outside the ring. On one episode hermaphrodites broke into fist fights with drag queens. Springer is on stations around the world, and airs locally at noon and 10 p.m. on KUWB Channel 30.
In his address to colleagues, ABC’s Iger said, I’ll take criticism for shows like NYPD Blue and Ellen because I believe there is room on the a for adult-oriented programs, provided they are of high quality. Programs like Jerry Springer are another matter. I question the logic of putting him on the air, and I believe the entire industry suffers from the association. Programs that are embarrassments to our business will, in the long run, alienate viewers.
Iger urged broadcasters to make improvements themselves before the government feels it necessary to intervene. He’s not suggesting censorship, he’s suggesting responsibility and civility, something sorely lacking in too much of commercial television fare.
Like Iger, Bennett (he authored the best-selling anthology of stories, The Book of Virtues) and Lieberman advocate broadcasters exercising responsibility and restoring a modicum of good taste to the airwaves. Television does exert an enormous influence over our culture and values, which means that broadcasters have an obligation to draw lines and practice self-restraint they wrote in their letter to NAB President Eddie Fritts.
Jerry Springer, crown prince of the sordid, the lurid, the titillating, the bizarre and the ill-mannered, bore the brunt of their criticism. The whole industry does in fact suffer when lines are not drawn and the likes of Jerry Springer’s trash are allowed to fester. It’s not just the negative publicity that hurts broadcasters, but the ways in which Mr. Springer and others like him lower programming standards and increase the pressure on others to be more shocking, more violent and more titillating to grab viewers’ attention. For that our entire society suffers, as do the one million children who watch the Springer show on a daily basis, who learn that anything goes, that any form of behavior is acceptable, and that the best way to settle a conflict is with a fist to the face.
Bennett and Lieberman’s contention that television is legitimizing aggression is born out not only in countless newspaper reports, but by researchers like James Garbarino, author of Raising Children In a Socially Toxic Environment, who bemoans the fact that kids are awash in imagery on TV and in video games that portrays aggression as the principal moral solution. The prospects of television becoming the purveyor of standards for a susceptible new generation is downright frightening.
Like Iger, Bennett and Lieberman called for citizenship, not censorship. They want the broadcast industry to police itself, which it once did. For 30 years, the NAB enforced its Television Code, which established a common set of standards and reflected a shared ethic that networks and local station managers have an obligation to act in the public interest. The codes advocated that broadcasters avoid programs and subject matter for the purpose of sensationalism or to shock or exploit the audience or to appeal to prurient interests or morbid curiosity. If such a code were in place today, said Bennett and Lieberman, The Jerry Springer Show would never have made it on the air, nor would CBS be adding what they call Howard Stern’s one-man sewage system to its late-night line-up.
Despite apparent evidence to the contrary (just check your TV listings), Bennett and Lieberman said they believe most NAB members still subscribe to the ethic undergirding the old code. Still, they asked the NAB president to fashion a new code of conduct for the coming century that would reassure the American public that there are some lines that television won’t cross to make a profit.
While Iger’s speech lends hope to the prospect of a new era of responsibility, the coarsening of discourse on the airwaves certainly is not subsiding. It wasn’t so long ago that an NBC station wanted to hire Springer as a news commentator until an anchor threatened to quit. Television shows like Springer’s push confrontation, contention, hostility, anger and fury because it sells. Springer and Stern exist and thrive because an audience tunes in, which is as much an indictment of the lowest order of public taste as it is of industry ethics. There may be some lines they won’t cross, but profit is the bottom line for commercial television. And as long as the likes of Stern and Springer can deliver an audience to advertisers, broadcasters have little incentive to take the moral high ground.
The late Fred Friendly, a long-time proponent of responsibility, likened the situation to junk food. If you feed people junk food, of course they’ll develop a taste for it, even if they gorge themselves on it until they get sick. Well, they’re getting sick. Welcome to Sodom.
But it’s unrealistic to expect broadcasters to change the fare until viewers change the channel. Only when audiences turn away from what Harper’s Lewis Lapham calls the Garden of Tabloid Delight will Stern and Springer disappear. Some viewers in Illinois have taken to publicly protesting The Jerry Springer Show, so maybe they’ve had enough. Until a TV-narcoticized viewing audience forsakes this steady diet of junk food, I doubt much will change. Still, as Fred Friendly and others have said, it certainly can’t hurt if broadcasters take the lead and offer a healthier TV diet. u
Mary Dickson is director of creative services at PBS affiliate KUED Channel 7 in Salt Lake City.