|All media seem to push the envelope. What made you concentrate on TV?|
Entertainment television is the single most powerful cultural force in our society today. If you're concerned about the sewage pouring into our society, you have to look at television and the role it plays. We formed the Parents Television Council in 1995 to build a wall and simply say, "No more." It was very difficult at first. It was a brand-new concept, and the general belief was that nothing could be done. But then I met [late comedian] Steve Allen. He was my political opposite, and yet we agreed on this issue of entertainment. I remember reading a speech he gave at the Banff Film Festival, where he took the industry to task, and I figured he'd do what everyone else does: apologize soon after because it could ruin his career. He didn't. In fact, two weeks later he gave another speech even tougher than the first one. He came onboard as our honorary chairman. We now have over a million members, and I've found that there are people of all political stripes who agree that something has to be done.
Do you have a specific example of how the PTC has made a difference?
When 7th Heaven first aired on the WB, it floundered. It was a very positive family program, but it wasn't getting much of an audience. The head of the WB contacted me and we talked about it. I told him his problem was marketing. He was trying to get people already watching television to turn to that show. I suggested that he pursue an audience that had stopped watching television but could be brought back with a good program. We helped them do a marketing campaign reaching out primarily to the religious right by using Christian radio. Within six months 7th Heaven was the network's No. 1 show, where it remained for its 10-year life span.
What concerns you about the way that TV is evolving?
There's this false notion that in cable you've got 100-150 channels out there, so there's great diversity. Actually, seven companies control approximately 80 percent of everything on cable today. Each owns multiple channels. They also own channels like HBO, so they're constantly moving programming from one network to another. The classic example is Sex and the City. What they've done is take out things like obscenities and nude scenes, but the storylines and dialogue remain essentially the same. The themes are just as filthy and immoral as they were on premium channels like HBO. That's a dramatic development.
And now those shows are more accessible to children—as if kids needed more edgy content thrown their way. The problem is that you still have this nincompoop idea in Hollywood that if you want to attract a young audience, you must give it something offensive. That goes against 50 years of programming history. What does that tell you they think of the American people? They think society is raunchy and they must be raunchy to attract a raunchy audience. I think society is better than that. Experience tells us when you give people positive, quality programming, it becomes successful programming.
Parents tell us they'd prefer to pay for cable channels à la carte, which makes a lot of sense.
That's the solution. We introduced that idea in 2005, and I think it will ultimately prevail. It simply says that, when you get your cable bill and you've got 80 channels on there, you ought to be able to pick and choose which ones you want to pay for. But the cable industry has thrown up one roadblock after another. It's interesting that the industry tells us it creates offensive programming because that's what people want. If that's true, they'd have no problem with à la carte cable. But it's not true, and they know it. How many parents, given the opportunity, would pay for their children to watch MTV? How many want to pay for an FX network that features the gruesome sadomasochism of Nip/Tuck? Not many.
How will the Internet change the television landscape over the next five years?
Dramatically. So much so that we won't recognize TV as we know it today. The change will be that revolutionary. Time-Warner has just announced a massive new programming initiative on the Internet. And with the advent of broadband programming, the advertising industry is realizing that it doesn't have to pay massive amounts of money on network or cable to reach a fraction of their targeted audience. Now they can reach viewers online more effectively for a lot less money. Therefore, I predict advertising dollars will shift overwhelming to the Internet in the next five years and the broadcast networks will become dinosaurs. Cable will also be threatened as more and more programming shows up online. The Internet is the future, not television.
In the meantime, what steps can families take to clean up TV?
If the Focus on the Family constituency alone were to stand up and say to advertisers, "I will not buy your product if you underwrite offensive programs," or told broadcasters, "I will protest to the PTC as an owner of the public airwaves every time you violate my community standards," or lobbied Congress to support à la carte cable, we would be successful across the board overnight. I'm not exaggerating. That's how important and powerful Focus on the Family supporters are.
Published February 2007