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Pope tries to unglue kids from TV sets

Pope John Paul II isn't known for moral pronouncements that are easy to abide, but a few weeks ago he made one that sets with me just fine. For the most part, at least.

The pontiff's peeve? Television.

"Parents who make regular, prolonged use of television as a kind of electronic babysitter surrender their role as the primary educators of their children," the pope declared.

Forming kids' television habits "will sometimes mean turning off the television set."

That's sound advice, and it shouldn't seem unreasonable once you examine the facts.

"With American children glued to the TV for an average of 27 hours each week (in the inner city it's often 11 hours per day), the American Psychological Association now estimates that a typical child will watch 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence before finishing elementary school," noted a 1993 Congressional Quarterly Inc. report.

On Wednesday, Florida Education Commissioner Doug Jamerson and Florida Parent-Teacher Association president Kay Luzier released results of a non-scientific parental study of TV violence in Florida. The tally: 6.8 violent incidents per hour on TV shows in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, 7.1 on average statewide.

Ironically, the network guns may not be blazing quite as fast as they were in the 1980s. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent research group, reports in a new study that "serious violence" in the premiere episodes of prime-time fictional series on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox dropped 28 percent this season compared to last.

Gunplay dropped even more sharply _ by 58 percent _ though total violence rose slightly.

But big problems persist.

Non-network syndicated TV series, which appear mostly on independent stations, rank as far more violent than network shows, according to the study. The three series with the most serious violence are syndicated shows: Highlander (31 scenes of serious violence in the premiere episode), Acapulco H.E.A.T. (25 scenes), and Renegade (24).

"Syndicators now fear that Congress may pressure them to put parental advisories on their shows, as the networks have pledged to do," TV Guide noted this week.

Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment, acknowledged the violence problem last month at an International Radio and Television Society meeting in New York.

"The pope is right," he said. "There is a lot of very violent television on all over the world."

But Harbert, whose comments appeared in the Florida Catholic newspaper, also argued that the U.S. networks are unfairly accused of emphasizing violent and antisocial shows and haven't been given credit for reducing violent scenes in recent years.

Well, okay, maybe things are improving a bit. But networks and syndicators have a long way to go.

"The networks really have taken steps to reduce violence," stated Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "But the action-adventure genre is alive and well in syndication. Moreover, these series will provide the basis for the next broadcast network's prime-time schedule."

And, of course, violence isn't the only blight on prime-time TV. So is television's often one-dimensional portrayal of sexual themes, especially those involving kids.

"Television programing and advertising in general provide young people with lots of clues about how to be sexy," noted a 1987 National Research Council report on adolescent sexuality, "but they provide little information about how to be sexually responsible."

So if the pope is on target with his criticism, what's my quibble with him?

He went on to say governments should enforce "reasonable ethical standards for programing that will foster the human and religious values on which family life is built."

On the surface, that may sound reasonable. But when you talk about government-imposed "ethical standards" that foster "religious values," you have to ask, "Whose standards? And whose religion?"

Surely liberal Presbyterians wouldn't be happy if conservative Catholics called the sit-com shots. Likewise, what if Unitarians set the Sunday morning local broadcast lineup? Would the evangelicals be happy? And if the Quakers were in charge of sports, forget ever seeing a good boxing match.

No, I'm too much of a First Amendment purist ever to want government-imposed rules on what we can read, hear and watch. I'll take the pope's first suggestion, though: If you don't like what's on the tube, turn the darn thing off.

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