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VIOLENCE STILL AN ISSUE IN KIDS TV RECENT ANNOUNCEMENTS ANSWER SOME QUESTIONS BUT RAISE OTHERS

By Published on .

Little Barney, age 9, wants to watch "Peachy-Keen Power Peacocks from Pluto," the highest-rated kids' show, on Superhighway Channel 666. But when he switches on the set, he finds a scarlet "V" on the screen instead of his beloved crimefighting peacocks.

"Ma, don't be such a prude," Barney complains.

"Bite your tongue, Barney" Mom retorts. "That show is much too violent for kids. And as long as I have the power to prevent you from watching those kinds of programs, I will use it. Now go read a book."

Such fiction could become reality if a plan announced earlier this month by the National Cable Television Association is implemented. It would allow cable subscribers to use new technology to scramble programs deemed violent by the networks or an independent monitor.

The proposal comes at a time when the public debate over violence on TV, and especially its effect on young viewers, has reached a frenzied pitch. According to a Corporation for Public Broadcasting survey released earlier this month, 82% of the respondents polled think TV programming is too violent.

Participants in this debate-parents, programmers, politicians and advertisers-agree violence on TV needs to be curbed. The issue they disagree on is control.

The scrambling initiative clearly empowers parents who find it more difficult to raise their children in an increasingly violent media environment. But it doesn't benefit the advertisers whose messages may get unintentionally-or intentionally-scrambled as well by the parent.

"It's a detriment to advertisers, but it gives parents another option in how they supervise their kids' leisure time," says Deyna Vesey, creative director/co-president, Kidvertiser, a New York-based agency that specializes in ads aimed at kids.

At this point, the limits of scrambling power are still uncertain. One cable channel, USA Network, objects to the plan on grounds of censorship. Also, it's yet to be decided if viewers would block individual episodes as they wished, or if certain programs would be scrambled automatically.

"With the definitions [of violence] so confused and with no standard, we find talk of a V chip very scary," says Bert Gould, VP-promotions and kids clubs, Fox Children's Network.

It's also unclear how cable networks would monitor themselves.

At MTV:Music Television, whose videos and programs like "Beavis and Butt-head" have come under fire for their violence and sexual content, executives say they would submit to an independent monitor's judgment. But they also insist the network's programming wouldn't end up getting scrambled.

"We do not feel it affects us. If a program is for an older audience, we air it later. ... And we have standards for our videos-if they're bad or exceed good taste, we reject them," says an MTV spokeswoman.

Although the answers to questions about monitoring and scrambling could come sooner than later, a larger question is, for cable and broadcasting: Will programming start featuring less violence, less sex, etc.?

Last year, Federal Communications Commission said it would fine broadcasters that don't show a minimum number of hours of educational programming for kids, in accordance with the Children's Television Act of 1990.

"The FCC took that position be cause the market place didn't work. The educational shows just weren't getting the ratings, so the networks didn't want to carry them," says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television.

Yet the truly ed ucational shows for kids are doomed to fail, says Ms. Charren, citing the fragmentation within the 6-to-11 kids' marketplace.

"With so many different little niches within that range that have their own educational requirements and need their own distinctive language, it's impossible for such shows to be successful in the mass market," says Ms. Charren.

As a result, she believes, "things will only get worse."

The news out of last month's National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Miami would seem to support Ms. Charren's contention.

Attendees said there were more programs offered by syndicators in the mold of action/science-fiction hits like "X-Men" and "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" (both on Fox) than CBS' hip and acclaimed-and low-rated-educational show, "Beakman's World."

"I believe programmers and advertisers are sensitive to parents' concerns, but the sad truth is educational shows don't deliver the ratings," says Allen Bohbot, president of Bohbot Communications, New York, a children's media buyer and producer of kids programs.

Even critics like Ms. Charren admit the slapstick, fantasy violence in "Road Runner" and "Mighty Morphin Power Ranger"-like shows don't contribute to the problem as much as adult-oriented shows like "NYPD Blue" or "Beavis & Butt-head," which are accessible to kids but clearly not intended for them.

Nonetheless, government is putting on the pressure, and the industry is responding. Earlier this month, broadcasters and cable executives agreed to monitor what was on TV and report their findings. But details of this monitoring have yet to be decided, and it's possible broadcasters and cable executives could adopt separate violence standards.

While programmers aren't in the business of hurting or exploiting kids, says Mr. Boh-bot, they're also not in the business of raising or reforming children.

"These kids have seen it all," from single-parent families to metal detectors at schools, Mr. Bohbot says. "They don't relate to feel-good shows filled with sweet and innocence.

"It's not our job to tell kids what is or what isn't good for them," Mr. Bohbot adds. "And it's not our job to change the world from what it is to what it ought to be, simply because we aren't capable of doing that."

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