Family television hour as a thing of the past

I suppose this is just one of those things that I’ve always taken for granted without giving it a lot of thought. Network TV is supposed to have tighter restrictions on the type of content they can show, particularly before 10 PM, providing a more family friendly lineup with less racy images and not so much coarse language. Cable television doesn’t hew to the same standards at any time of day, but are really allowed to go off the leash quite a bit during the late night hours. Subscriber TV, such as HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, etc. can show pretty much anything up to and including soft core pornography, trusting to the fact that parents will regulate what their children view and can keep control of pay channel access with their credit card. But the playing field has definitely shifted, particularly over the last decade, and the networks are saying that the old rules don’t really apply anymore, and they would like the restrictions loosened up a bit.

When they talk to Wall Street, broadcast moguls love to boast about their financial power and unparalleled ability to reach mass audiences. But the FCC heard a different story this week from networks as they challenged the agency’s efforts to minimize indecent programming. Companies say that the rules are too vague, that they clash with broadcasters’ First Amendment rights, and that parents can control what their kids watch. But ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC also say that rules are archaic because the networks have lost so much cultural clout. Fox says in an FCC filing, “Americans today, including children, spend more time engaged with non-broadcast channels delivered by cable and satellite television, the Internet, video games and other media than they do with broadcast media.” In a separate filing, NBCUniversal observes that ”Broadcast TV is not a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of 21st Century Americans.” Broadcast network affiliates’ total day share of viewing “was just 28 percent in the 2010-2011 television season – compared to the 53 percent viewing share held by ad-supported cable programming networks.” CBS also notes that “the day when a child watching television was almost certain to be watching broadcast television has long since passed.”

I first caught wind of this story from Dr. James Joyner, who seems to sympathize with the networks.

They’re right.

The rules made sense thirty, even twenty years ago. Back then, cable television was essentially a platform for showing re-runs from the networks, live sports, and theatrical movies. The handful of original creative shows were mostly R-rated T&A shows that HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime—premium priced providers—aired late at night. Nowadays, the distinction between “broadcast” and “cable” or “satellite” is largely irrelevant. Even the likes of USA Network and A&E are producing their own programming and most of us time-shift our viewing via our DVRs. I frankly don’t know what time most of the shows I watch air and am only vaguely aware of which network airs them. And any show that airs after 9pm is getting watched later in the week at an earlier hour, anyway, so the “family time” concept is irrelevant.

Joyner goes even further, stating that the current generation of tech savvy kids with access to all of the cutting edge entertainment technology largely renders much of the protections irrelevant, and that most of the material on cable if already family friendly, provided we “don’t hold to 1950s notions of acceptable language and sexual depiction.” Joyner is dealing with life as a single dad, so I’m not going to judge him too much on that.

But I do have to wonder if this is a battle which we shouldn’t just give up on. I continually find myself depressed over many ills in society which seem to me – speaking only as a layman, of course – to be the result of decaying structure in the family and the community. This just sounds like one more line which we, as a society, shouldn’t completely abandon. But is it too late? Has technology left us in the dustbin of history on this one? Aside from throwing out your television entirely or keeping it in a locked room and forbidding your children the use of a computer and a mobile phone, perhaps it’s become too high of a wall to climb.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.