More reasons to be vigilant about kids and TV — as if we needed any

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — As if we really needed them, here are still more reasons to be vigilant about television and its potential harmful effects on children.

— Under the heading “What hath ‘Teletubbies’ wrought?”, entire channels are now dotting the 500-channel universe devoted to the youngest children, who have no discretionary spending but can develop brand loyalty at an early age.

— The United States’ dominant Spanish-language TV network, Univision, has agreed to pay a $24 million fine to the Federal Communications Commission for touting as “educational and informational” children’s programming that was neither educational nor informational — nor, come to think of it, for children.

— The American Psychological Association issued a report in February about the growing sexualization of young girls, calling it a matter that needs close, close attention.

One thing at a time.

BabyFirstTV, which debuted last year on satellite television, is making its way to cable systems across the United States, according to a story in The Washington Post. A British channel with the same ultrayoung demographic, BabyTV, is expected to make its way across the Atlantic before the year is over.

“Teletubbies,” which debuted in 1998, is aimed at the under-2 set, as are the new “baby” channels. “Teletubbies” was able to save on production costs because, after showing some short film or another, one of the four Teletubbies would invariably say “Again! Again!” — as the series’ child experts imagined a human toddler would — and the film would be repeated.

Then there are the video marketing firms like Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein, which cater to the youngest of the young. They rake in hundreds of millions of dollars for their parent companies.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 43 percent of children under age 1 watch at least some TV every day. This despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under age 2. In my own house, my 3-year-old watches only the occasional storybook-made-into-a-cartoon DVD and the half-hour “Wallace and Gromit” clay-animation features — and never alone.

What hath “Teletubbies” wrought, indeed. Whoever called television an electronic baby sitter was a few decades too early.

The FCC’s fine — and Univision’s apparent willingness to pay it — would dwarf the recent fines levied against (and contested by) CBS in the past three years: a cumulative $3 million for CBS affiliates airing a simulated teen sex orgy on the prime-time drama “Without a Trace,” and $550,000 for the famed “wardrobe malfunction” of Janet Jackson during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

The series at the heart of the fine, a “telenovela” or serial drama called “Complices al Rescate” (“Friends to the Rescue”), dealt at least on the surface with two 11-year-old girls who used friendship, love and teamwork to solve problems. But the complaint, brought by the United Church of Christ, said the series contained many adult plots and complex themes that were hardly suitable for young children. Further, a children’s programming consultant, Federico Subervi, said 80 percent of the advertising during the show was geared toward adults.

The United Church of Christ’s complaint added that 24 Univision affiliates were not observing the 1996 guidelines on children’s TV. As part of the deal, Univision and its affiliates will have to air programming that is truly educational and informational for children.

If you’re wondering why Univision would agree to such a fine, it’s because it would clear the deck for the network’s sale — for $12 billion — to a consortium of private equity firms, one of whom has immediate past FCC chairman Michael Powell as a senior executive.

Last, but hardly least, is the American Psychological Association study, issued Feb. 15. It found that in every form of media that was scrutinized last fall by an APA committee — TV, movies, the Internet, magazines, advertising and sports media — women and girls are sexualized and objectified.

“There may be consequences for society as well,” wrote Eileen Zurbriggen, associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who chaired the APA’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, in a Feb. 26 article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“If pop culture is saturated with images in which girls are sexualized, will we begin to project adult sexual desires onto children? Will we come to believe that children want to have sex with adults, thus making child sexual abuse seem “normal” and perhaps increasing the demand for child prostitution?” Zurbriggen asked. “Girls deserve better.”

As does society.

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Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.

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When you keep your eye on TV, what do you see? What are your likes or dislikes? What are your concerns and criticisms? Be as general or as specific as you wish. Send your comments to: Mark Pattison, Media Editor, Catholic News Service, 3211 Fourth St. N.E., Washington, DC 20017.


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