When Philo T. Farnsworth invented television back in the late 1920’s, it’s clear that neither he nor anyone else associated with this revolutionary technology could imagine a future where we would have hundreds of channels of programming at our fingertips, or homes where the television replaced the hearth as the gathering place for families.
Television has long mirrored changes in the broader culture, such as the partisan political divide. As Entertainment Weekly reported a few years ago, Democrats enjoy shows like Community and Portlandia, while Republicans prefer Duck Dynasty and just about anything on HGTV.
Unfortunately, not all of those changes are positive. Consider television’s portrayal of children and family relationships. While the twentieth century offered up families like Leave it to Beaver (where kids learned valuable moral lessons from their parents) as well as the Brady Bunch, the Partridges, and the Huxtables (all of which emphasized respect for each other and the compromises necessary to make a family work), today the family is too often a celebration of ridicule and dysfunction.
Today’s TV families have gone from being respectful and supportive to being snarky, hostile, and rude. Perhaps it was the success of the crass Married… with Children that marked the beginning of this trend, but it’s impossible to turn on the television now and see children that are truly role-models—even from supposedly family-friendly companies like Disney.
In fact, according to the latest research from the Parent Television Council, Disney-owned ABC and Fox are the two worst offenders for vulgarity with TV shows that regularly feature children using profanity and sexual dialogue. The worst of all shows is the ABC “family” sitcom The Real O’Neals, which “contains more sexual dialog involving teen and child characters than any other primetime program on broadcast TV.”
Even cartoons aren’t free of obscenities and sexual situations—and we’re not talking about Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. Yes, innuendo has always been popular in children’s programming (watch the original Batman TV series as an adult and you will see what I mean) but the situations and comments broadcast today aren’t subtle—they’re explicit.
Even the ostensibly kid-oriented cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants isn’t immune, as College Humor noted when it wrote about inappropriate scenes from the show. Included on the list is the main character blowing up a condom as if it’s a balloon as well as references to female menstruation, prostitution, pornography, and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s hard to imagine Mickey Mouse or the Peanuts gang celebrating any of these things.
And then there’s the rise in vulgarity on shows. Network TV shows now have to compete with Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and other alternative sources that don’t have the same FCC constraints as the broadcast networks do. The result? During primetime broadcasting, PTC reports that language used by child and teen-aged characters included: (bleeped) “s**t” and “s**tting,” (bleeped) “f**k” and “f**king,” “erections,” “boobs,” “penis,” “masturbating,” “nymphomaniac,” “ass,” and more.
Not all television is awful, and not all “family” programs are inappropriate for children of course. For every family portrayed on TV where the children are rude, disrespectful, and off in their own world there are other programs where the parents love and support their children and their children respond in kind. Black-ish, Supergirl, Once Upon a Time, Fresh Off the Boat and The Simpsons all get a nod of approval from Commonsense Media, for example. Reality shows such as Master Chef Junior also offer some family-friendly viewing too.
Nevertheless, too many of our so-called family programs are vulgar forms of entertainment. Ultimately it is the parents’ responsibility to choose the shows that are appropriate for their children (and to watch with them to help them understand what they’re seeing). But we should also demand better programming from companies like Disney and FOX. Vulgarity might sell—but at what cost to our children?