In Depth

Adalian Column: PTC Uses Kids as Human Shields

Last week, I called up several high-ranking TV executives in order to get their opinions of the Parents Television Council. I asked one to tell me the first word that came to mind when they thought of the watchdog organization.

“Vomit,” the executive said.

Yeah, that pretty much sums up how I feel, too.

Such a reaction might seem extreme. After all, the PTC sells itself as an advocacy organization looking to defend little ones from harmful images. The motto on its Web site reads, “Because our children are watching.”

Unfortunately, the PTC’s actions and words too often have indicated that its real mission includes pushing for government-sanctioned censorship of the media and the elimination of any and all programming that conflicts with its far-right social and political philosophies.

What’s more, rather than working with networks to figure out ways to increase family-friendly programming and offer true protection to children, the PTC is obsessed with denouncing shows clearly aimed at adult audiences.

The PTC doesn’t want to make TV safe for kids. It wants to make it safe only for those shows that fit into its narrowly constructed worldview of what constitutes acceptable TV. And when it identifies programming that doesn’t mesh with its agenda, the PTC goes into overdrive whipping up its base to take action.

“All they’re about is fund raising and court cases,” said one network executive who, like everyone interviewed for this column, spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “They would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.”

Consider: This summer, the PTC called on CBS affiliates to preempt the network’s “Swingtown” -- even though the show aired in the last hour of prime time across the country. “‘Swingtown’ undermines the institutions of marriage and family,” the PTC said in calling for its boycott. “This show should not be on broadcast television -- period.”

It doesn’t matter that “Swingtown” contained no obscene language or nudity. The fact that CBS aired the show at 10 p.m. in most of the country is irrelevant. Adult viewers simply shouldn’t be able to watch this show, period, according to the cultural crusaders of the PTC.

In fairness, the PTC also wants to cleanse the airwaves of anything it deems too violent. Or even just icky. The season premiere of Fox’s “Fringe” was labeled the “worst TV show of the week” by the group because of an opening scene involving some flesh-melting.

Attempts to honor our nation’s troops can also meet with disapproval from the PTC. It declared ABC’s Sept. 7 special “America United” one its “worst” shows because the broadcast -- rated TV-14 by the network -- contained some randy humor, an appearance by a scantily clad Pamela Anderson and a performance by Snoop Dogg.

“They’re trying to sanitize television to match up with their view of what’s appropriate,” one network insider told me. “I don’t think that’s quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they talked about freedom of speech.”

What’s most irksome -- and dangerous -- about the PTC is the way it uses children as human shields to hide its real agenda.

There’s nothing wrong with any person or group declaring their disgust with what’s on the small screen. It’s part of what I do for a living, after all.

But the PTC is being morally and intellectually dishonest by pretending that it’s simply trying to protect kids.

How are children helped when the PTC spends so much of its time railing against shows that clearly aren’t intended for their eyes? How are America’s families strengthened by an organization that wastes its time ginning up bogus outrage over a half-second shot of a penis on “Survivor” that could only be seen by viewers watching in HD and using the freeze-frame function of their DVRs?

If the PTC really cared about kids, they’d spend as much time coaching parents on how new technologies can help them monitor their kids’ viewing as they do trying to censor networks.

Instead, the PTC regularly twists the technicalities of decades-old obscenity regulations to force networks to spend millions defending programming that is very clearly not obscene. And in recent years, the organization has even started challenging cable, doing all it can to defame shows with even an ounce of edge.

PTC founder L. Brent Bozell last month launched a verbal broadside against FX and its president, John Landgraf, because Mr. Bozell thought the network’s “Sons of Anarchy” represented the “gruesome unfolding of a pervert’s mind onto a national television screen.” He denounced FX for being more concerned about artistic vision than the “prospect of a 10-year-old boy finding a terrifying castration scene as he’s flipping channels in his home.”

Personally, I’d be more troubled by the irresponsibility of the parents of any 10-year-old who would allow their son to be channel surfing, unattended, at 10 o’clock at night.

There’s a reason Mr. Bozell and the folks at the PTC have broadened their attacks beyond broadcasters. They want Congress to require cable operators to offer channels on an a la carte basis. Their argument: Consumers shouldn’t have to subsidize “filth” on channels they don’t like.

The problem, of course, is that a la carte would mean the death of numerous cable channels, and a severe restriction in programming budgets for those that survived. There would be far less choice for consumers, and far fewer outlets producing cutting-edge fare such as “Sons of Anarchy.”

It’s not cable choice the PTC and its allies want. It’s not even to shield kids from smut.

It’s control of what you get to watch.