Parents Television Council debate: We ask TV's biggest protest group all our longtime questions
They’re the best-known protest organization against graphic TV sex and violence. Even if you don’t know their name, you’ve seen the results of their efforts. Those headlines about that long Sons of Anarchy sex montage? The furor over ABC’s Charlie Brown repeat leading into a Scandal sex scene? The content protests against Fox’s Family Guy, VH-1’s Dating Naked and CBS’ Stalker? All the work of the Parents Television Council, a 19-year-old oft-outraged Los Angeles-based organization that’s probably the best known remaining anti-indecency group around.
Some parents appreciate their efforts (about 1.4 million have joined the PTC in some fashion, with about 100,000 actively donating per year). But network and producer reaction to their protests range from privately infuriated to utterly dismissive (Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane once likened getting a protest letter from the PTC to “getting hate mail from Hitler”).
Below, PTC president Tim Winter takes our questions. And we had a lot of them. For years we’ve received PTC’s protests, read your reactions to our coverage of their concerns, and heard off-record earfuls about their campaigns from irate network insiders. So we relished having an hour with Winter to ask everything we always wanted to know. The resulting interview was often illuminating, and at times a spirited debate. Whether you agree or disagree with the PTC, they always know how to put up a good fight.
EW:There used to be a lot of media watchdog groups you would hear about. Now, I usually only hear about the PTC—at least in terms of being exclusively devoted to Hollywood media. To what do you attribute your longevity?
Tim Winter: There are other groups still out there that we work with very closely. Morality in Media is still out there. American Decency Association is still out there. Citizens for Community Values. Sometimes they’ll join us in a project, sometimes they won’t. We’re certainly the most well-known. We probably have the most resources. As to what do we owe our longevity, we’re not a partisan group. We have a staff member who has a picture of Ronald Reagan in his office and the guy right next to him has a picture of Obama. We have left, center, right on our staff, on our board, in our membership. I think it gives the organization strength when you aren’t a political group, and you’re working hard to protect kids.
What are the best and worst shows on television from a morality standpoint?
Certainly the word “morality” is present with what we do, but we base most of our work on what science says is harmful to kids, and what is certainly offensive to a lot of families. We’re very concerned about Stalker. It’s a show that’s very dark, very graphically explicit. When you go over to the cable side, a show like Sons of Anarchy. [Note: This interview was conducted before the SoA finale.]
We understand that [creator] Kurt Sutter has every right to produce that show, and a cable network has every right to air it. At least it’s rated appropriately as TV-MA. But our issue is that we’re forced to pay for it as part of our cable bundle. We went after them about the scene where the kid loads up the machine gun and walks into a school and starts shooting. We went after [Sutter] on that and he seemed to bristle and call us idiots, saying that we didn’t understand what he was trying to do, that he was trying to create a dialogue. There was no effort to create a dialogue. We really went after Dating Naked hard, on VH1. It’s on at all times of the day. It’s rated as appropriate for 14-year-old children. I don’t know about you, but that’s not okay for my teenagers to see that. It’s, again, part of the bundle that we have to pay for.
What shows do you urge your members to support?
What’s interesting is the two most popular shows on television right now are Dancing With the Stars and The Voice. Both are very family-friendly. We applaud the advertisers who sponsor those shows. They’re the most-watched shows every week that they’re on if there’s not a big football game. Sons of Anarchy can’t hold a torch to those shows in terms of ratings. The Walking Dead is the only show on cable that comes close to the top of the broadcast herd. We like The Middle—a good, family-friendly show. There’s not a whole lot these days that we consider really a green-light program.
NCIS and Big Bang Theory are actually at the top of the fall list in terms of total viewers, not Dancing and Voice.
I haven’t seen that being the case, but okay. We’ve never gone after Big Bang Theory. It certainly has some suggestive content to it. But it’s the same guy [Chuck Lorre] that created Two and a Half Men. We previously went after Two and a Half Men for explicit dialogue and scenes. But I think it shows how creative he is, that he can do Big Bang Theory. That’s brilliantly written.
Do networks ever send you content review, or do they solicit your input?
Some do. We have a dialogue with most networks at some level. We can go after a network for something they did that we think was inappropriate, but we will absolutely turn on a dime and support something that’s family-friendly, something positive, something that we can market to our members.
Do you feel like you have a ratings impact? Sometimes you will make it sound like you successfully got a show cancelled, like after Fox cancelled the low-rated sitcom Dads. You got a lot of headlines protesting Sons of Anarchy, but the next week the ratings went up.
It depends. I can’t prove that a certain number of people didn’t watch because of our guidance or advisory. What I do know is that there are shows that are on a bubble, and if advertising dollars go away, then that bubble pops. There are shows that can be low-rated, but if the advertising dollars are there, they’ll stay on the air … Our goal is very seldom to get a show cancelled. What we want is the heat turned down in terms of the content, or for a show to be put on later at night, or to be put in a place where we don’t have to pay for it. We don’t ever go after HBO, or Cinemax, or Showtime. We hear back from the advertisers from time to time, saying, “The network says they’re going to cut out some [explicit] scenes, can we come back into the show?” To me, that’s a real testament to the work that’s being done that edits are being made, content is being toned down. And a lot of it has to do with the advertisers’ pushback.
Most people do support the idea of a la carte menus on cable. But what cable networks will point out is doing so will likely lead to many channels of family-friendly programming dying off. Would it be worth ditching the bundle if some family-friendly channels end up dying?
The only people who make that claim are those who profit from the bundle. To me, the statement is absurd. If there is family-friendly material that is of good quality, audiences flock to it. The biggest motion picture blockbusters are the superheroes and the family-friendly movies. They’re the most profitable. Why is that? There’s a huge market for it. Would we be concerned that real good stuff would go off the air in a real free market for cable programming? We are not concerned about that at all.
You’ve also pointed out that TV content ratings are sometimes arguably softer than what they should be. You protested that The Walking Dead had a TV-14 rating and then AMC changed it to a more appropriate TV-MA.
Was there a question in there?
No. I was just giving you the opportunity to expand on that part of your mission.
I have been told by broadcast executives at the networks that our research has actually led to them tightening certain aspects of the content ratings. They are frequently inaccurate. And when they are inaccurate, they are always inaccurate in one direction, which is [rating the show for] younger rather than older. Each network rates their own shows. There is no system that rates all of them. There is no consistency. We have seen the same show on two different networks rated two different things. We’ve seen the same episode of the same show rated differently by the networks … So, where’s the oversight? Where’s the accuracy? Where’s the consistency? Where’s the transparency? Where’s the public accountability?
Well, there are no indecency requirements for ad supported basic cable. It’s a self-policing system to please the viewers and advertisers. While their content ratings might be sometimes flawed, don’t cable networks deserve some credit for what they are doing voluntarily to hold back, rate and label what they do have?
So, did I get your question right: “Should we applaud them for sucking less than they might otherwise?” Hmm. Barring obscenity, you’re right, there is no indecency rule on cable. And we’ve never advocated expanding indecency [rules] into cable. Our policy is just if we’re going to pay for it, let us pay for the stuff that we want going to pay for just like we do in every other medium.
When we write about something you’ve protested, like Sons of Anarchy, readers always say parents should be responsible for the content their kids are watching.
The issue of protecting children from what’s harmful begins and ends with the parent. They are the first and last line of defense. That doesn’t mean it should be the only line of defense. Any other product in the history of American commerce is held accountable for what happens when that product is consumed—except for television. If there’s pollution in the air, I can pick up my family and move somewhere where the air is cleaner—but I shouldn’t have to. We should hold those accountable who pollute the air.
Broadcasters are using public airwaves, and that requires a license from the FCC, which serves the behalf of the American people. One of the terms of the license is not to be indecent before 10 p.m. at night. “Hi, we’re going to deliver your product to every home in the country for free, and all we’re asking you is you don’t be indecent before 10 o’clock at night.” I’m sorry, what corporation in America wouldn’t want to have their product delivered to every home in America for free? All they have to do is wait until 10 o’clock at night to start dropping F bombs. But that’s not good enough. To say it’s all on the parents, I think, is unreasonable, unfair. In no other industry in America when you put out products that are harmful to kids do people say, “It’s the parents’ fault.”
Well, the other industry I would point out is the Internet. It’s infinitely more violent. Infinitely more pornographic. And more widely available. You’ve protested shows on MTV—pay cable is far more tame and far more difficult to access than the internet. So is TV really the best focus of your attention?
One thing is to say, “Well, there are no rules over there, so we shouldn’t have any rules on this side either.” We disagree with that premise … If you’re 7, 8, 9 years old, you’re familiar with the TV remote control, but you might not be familiar with how to navigate the web. You do have the ability to have blocking devices on your computer. The Internet is absolutely more explicit, more harmful, but it’s not being delivered into every living room without a subscription—or with cable if you do have a subscription. With a flip of a thumb on a remote control, you can go from a football game to people having intercourse.
The Sons of Anarchy sex montage prompted another common reader response. A lot of our readers noted this was the same episode that featured a man ripping another man’s eyeball out. So many wondered, “Why do these guys object to a sexual relationship, but not the atrocious violence that might be in the same episode?” Viewing violent imagery has been more directly linked to having a negative effect on children.
They’re both harmful. The scientific evidence talks about sexual content and how it affects young children, especially the violence. We talked about the sex scene on Sons of Anarchy because it was groundbreaking in terms of the entire platform of basic cable. The sex montage was the most explicit scene we’d ever seen on basic cable. But we absolutely condemn the explicit violence as well. We don’t have the same leverage as we do on the broadcast side with the sexual content and the profanity because of the way the law is written.
You often target grown-up content at 8 p.m, what you call “family hour.” But family hour, as I’m sure you know, was established by the FCC in 1975. Then it was overturned in ’77 as unconstitutional. At this point, you have to realize “family hour” is pretty much a dead concept. Aren’t you holding broadcasters to a standard that the government outlawed more than 30 years ago?
We don’t use it as a legal term. We use it as a conceptual term. It’s the time of day when families will usually watch something together or when children are more likely to be in the audience. We don’t think of it as a hard and fast rule. We think if you’re a corporation and you know that there’s a time and place where there’s likely to be families gathered together to consume your product, what are you going to produce for this market? You can air edgy, adult, graphic, adult-themed material without being indecent. There are a lot of shows that do that, every single night. There’s hardly a show out there now that is 100 percent free of sex, violence, or profanity that a family can watch together on broadcast. Broadcasters think they have to be niche-targeted and that the niche has to include deep, dark, troubling, and disturbing content, when you have millions of Americans who are put off by that. It just seems like such a foolish market decision.
But wouldn’t you agree there’s more family friendly programming available now than ever before? There are like, a dozen cable networks exclusively devoted to running kids programming around the clock, plus PBS. And with DVRs, you can watch such programming in prime time—”family hour”—whenever you want.
What you said is correct. There are more networks than there ever have been and some of them are dedicated to family programming. But you have to pretty much hunt for something that is great for the whole family as opposed to the broadcast networks back when I was growing up, when the first couple of hours every night of prime time broadcast TV were all about something that the whole family could enjoy together.
The different niches that you pointed out are reflecting the way people consume content. It’s not necessarily a strategy of “let’s do more edgy content just because.” For better or worse, people are just consuming media more individually now, instead of together as a family.
I agree with part of that. I embrace your concept that television is more fragmented than it has ever been. That’s the absolute truth. It’s all becoming more so as we get more content available online. But I don’t see how that impacts our work. If we’re trying to protect kids from stuff that’s harmful, we want the stuff on later at night, or on premium cable outside the bundle. Don’t make us pay for it. You look at like Dating Naked, the number of 2-to-17 year olds who watch that is really a concerningly high number. When MTV ran Skins a few years ago, it had a really high number of 2-17 who were watching that show and it was TV-MA.
You mentioned Dating Naked a couple of times. But in that case, it’s not sex. It’s two consenting adults going jet skiing and having dinner with big blurs instead of bathing suits. It’s hard not to feel you’re more appealing to conservative adults, rather than really asking the question: “What is healthy for, or unhealthy, for kids to be seeing?” It’s just human nudity.
It’s hardly the nude statue in the Louvre. The whole premise is intended primarily to pander, to titillate. True, there’s no humping going on. The conduct of the people is pretty disgustingly wretched—they say to each other, “oh, he’s well hung.” The whole premise of this is some sophisticated way of getting beyond barriers. They’re attempting to shock and to titillate, and they’re rating this to 14-year-old children and running it throughout the day.
Is there any show you protested that you later regretted?
Good question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that one before in all the interviews I’ve ever done. I would say Jane the Virgin on The CW. We saw the first episode and we were concerned, and we put out a warning saying, “Hey, be careful, parents.” Subsequent episodes has been pleasantly surprising in terms of its relative cleanness and good messaging. We might have jumped a little too quickly on that one based on just the first episode. Just as a matter of policy, we usually don’t publicly comment on shows until we’ve seen three episodes. We’re still kind of watching it to see how it unfolds.
You said you never commented publicly on a show before seeing it, but I think you did actually on MTV’s version of Skins. And didn’t you also warn MTV about Nicki Minaj before she performed? Sort of pre-judging it based on what you thought she might do, not what she actually did.
You say “pre-judging,” but we’re judging based on a whole history of behavior. We went after Howard Stern joining America’s Got Talent because on his own radio show he pretended to be a judge on a musical talent show, and he was talking about how “oh, she’s ugly, little boys don’t want to beat off to her.” There’s this whole history of conduct and behavior in a certain way. You’re darn right we’re going to absolutely take them to task ahead of time. And I can’t say if Howard Stern cleaned up his act because we went batshit crazy on him beforehand. But what I do know is he has been pleasantly positive surprise to us. Nicki Minaj, same thing. She had a pattern of conduct beforehand, and our warning was for the network to be mindful of the audience that they’re going to have, and to make sure that they edit it appropriately.
It does feel like you tend to go after the one thing that will get you the media headlines rather than what’s necessarily the most offensive thing.
That’s not our motivation. Our mission is to protect kids, and our vision is for a safe and sound media landscape for children and families. That’s our vision. Everything we do is in furtherance of that mission and that vision. Certainly there are times when you comment on something, it’s going to get a bigger spike of media interest … I’m really proud of the public policy efforts we made in DC. People will seek us out for co-signing on letters and so forth. Our motivation isn’t what’s going to get the biggest media hook. The motivation is what best seems to fit at the time with the resources we have. We have 17 [employees], $3.2 or $3.5 million budget this year against a multi-billion-dollar opponent. It truly is David and Goliath. But David has a pretty good slingshot and can land a good rock every once and a while.
Fox took a big risk devoting many hours of its primetime schedule to an educational show. One with no sex, no violence, all education. That’s an extreme rarity for broadcast. And that was Cosmos—produced by Seth MacFarlane, whom you guys have a really long history protesting. Why didn’t you urge members to watch that show?
I don’t remember. It was a clean show. It was a documentary format—we don’t do news, we don’t do sports, and we don’t do documentaries. It wasn’t an attempt not to talk about it. It was not on the radar.
I guess what I’m saying is: It seems like the type of thing that you would otherwise encourage, but maybe in this case might not because of who was doing it.
That had nothing to do with it. Cosmos shows how talented and capable the guy is if he wants to get out of the frat boy mentality with some of his content. He’s a smart, creative, brilliant guy. I mean, I think that’s a good example of what he’s capable of in terms of producing really good quality stuff that the family can enjoy together, as opposed to rape and pedophilia jokes.
I’m kind of reeling. You’ve both said “batshit” and complimented Seth MacFarlane within the past five minutes.
You ought to come to some of our staff meetings.
Last question: Do you ever feel tired of feeling outraged? There’s an increasing sea of adult entertainment content being delivered in all sorts of ways. How is this a battle that you ever win? And how would you define success?
Good question. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How could I possibly be more outraged?” That’s never my motivation. I’m certainly concerned, and there is certain content that I think deserves even more intense scrutiny and condemnation. It seems to me like there are some people out there who just really want to say the rules don’t apply to them and act accordingly.
How do you win? We’ve internally talked about how do you tackle the Internet, how do you tackle video games, how do you tackle cell phones. I know for a fact, based on conversations that I’ve had at the network level, that there would be full nudity on primetime broadcast television if it weren’t for our efforts. But it’s tough for me to prove something that hasn’t happened yet.
I know that we’re holding a line that many inside the industry would like to step over. I’m still upset that we helped pass a bill in California that prevented unattended minors from purchasing adult-rated video games. And the video game industry filed suit and said it was against a child’s First Amendment right to free speech. We fought all the way to the Supreme Court and essentially lost. So we take our lumps. You hold the line where you can. We’re working on new programs that will hopefully help educate parents better, make sure they’re more attuned to what’s out there. I guess if you’re a policeman your goal one day is to have absolutely zero crime. Is that realistic? Maybe, maybe not. But you gotta keep fighting.