ABC anchorman Peter Jennings recently hosted a special telling us “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying.” The primary point was to encourage the public to view fatty foods as a public health threat on the order of cigarette smoking, and to encourage the viewpoint that government had better play a greater role as the national food police.
I’m sure many parents of young children caught one of the storylines within the special: Children are being pressured by advertisers into overeating, overdrinking and obesity. Jennings warned: “The average American child sees 10,000 food advertisements a year on television alone. Most of those advertisements are for fast food, sugar-coated cereal, soft drinks and candy, and other foods dense in fat and calories … They’re not advertising fruits and vegetables on television.”
One of ABC’s villains in this piece was a man named Paul Kurnit, who makes his living by teaching advertisers how to appeal to kids. Jennings prodded him about his seeming lack of social responsibility. “When you’re putting together an advertising campaign, do you care if it’s healthy or not?” Jennings demanded to know. “Have you played a role in making less-healthy products appealing to children, thereby increasing their desire for those products?”
So ABC News is aligning itself firmly in the camp of those who believe television can influence impressionable young minds, and not always for their own good. Bully. Now I suggest there’s another fascinating special that Peter should put together. Let’s talk about the television shows in between the commercials that take up three times as much airtime. More specifically, let’s talk about how ABC is putting eyeballs in front of the tube with its own messages for children, messages filled with sexual innuendoes, violence and grisly crime talk.
And let’s be fair by putting ABC boss Michael Eisner on the hot seat to ask him those pointed questions put to the food industry. Do you care if your TV shows are healthy or not? Have you played a role in making less-healthy behaviors appealing to children, thereby increasing their desires for those behaviors? Eisner’s interview could be matched with a few choice ABC programs:
1. The middle episode of the trilogy on “Trista and Ryan’s Wedding.” ABC sent the winning couple of “The Bachelorette” to the beautiful Caribbean island of St. Maarten for wild bachelor and bachelorette parties with booze and strippers. Children can watch female strippers taking their clothes off, with pixilated nudity, which ultimately causes Ryan to walk away. Meanwhile, Trista has a wild time with the male strippers, is dared to write on one’s naked buttocks, drinks a “body shot” out of another’s navel and convinces a complete stranger to take his underwear off. As the naked men are pixilated, the girls hoot and holler. Mr. Eisner, what’s more likely to leave an impression on children, this or an ad for Jell-O Pudding Bites?
2. “NYPD Blue.” This show airs in the last hour of prime time — but at only 9 p.m. Central time. One recent show featured a serial killer plot. The victims were raped with a dildo and then strangled to death. The killer confesses she “knocked them on the head, sedated them, inserted the dildo with condom on it, and then strangled them.”
The question to Eisner: Do you like being responsible for thousands of children asking their parents what a dildo is?
3. “George Lopez.” This normally decent show, part of ABC’s effort to recreate the momentum the network used to have with family-friendly shows like “Full House” and “Family Matters,” took an awful turn on the episode when George’s mother Benny demanded that her son take her to gynecologist’s office, where she learns that she’s contracted gonorrhea from a much younger lover. Is George appalled by his mother’s behavior? Not enough to refrain from joking about it. “You’re too old. You should be closing up the shop by now.” To which Mom jokes back, “Well, the shop is still open, and now there’s a cleanup in Aisle 2!” Message for impressionable children: Sexually transmitted diseases are fun!
Faced with growing protests over its outrageous irresponsibility, ABC (like everyone else in the industry) trots out the company line: Why, it’s up to parents to keep their children away from these shows! But in the ABC news show on fatty foods, Jennings was offended when his kiddie-ad expert took the very same position.
It’s hard to imagine that ABC will turn the cameras back on itself and focus on what these fat kids are watching in between those dastardly food commercials. ABC won’t create a special lambasting its own effect on the culture, with a title like “How Your Teens Curse, Drink, Have Sex and Catch Diseases Without Really Trying.” Perhaps this explains why the public is now demanding that the FCC — or Congress — step in to protect their families from the avalanche of harmful filth coming from ABC.