Guest Commentary: TV’s Take on Drinking No Joke for Teenagers

Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Television comedians and comic actors are accustomed to having their sketches, routines and one-liners routinely attract uproarious laughter. They do not always hit the mark.
A recent feeble attempt at humor by actress Nicole Sullivan on the finale of Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown” was so misguided it was beneath contempt.
Ms. Sullivan had just won the poker tournament and was asked by host Kevin Pollack what she learned from the experience. Her answer: “Liquor helps. One thing the kids should know-drink, ’cause it makes you smarter.”
For those not in the know, Ms. Sullivan is a former six-year cast member of Fox’s “MadTV,” but she also has a following of children and teens as the voice of Shego on The Disney Channel’s “Kim Possible.”
To suggest our culture is out of hand is a cliche, but remarks like Ms. Sullivan’s, even in jest, are part and parcel of why broadcasters frequently take it on the chin concerning their depiction of alcohol in entertainment programming. Here is a woman who was playing cards on television for a charity that funds the neutering of cats, and she suggests to kids-even though it was in a pitiful attempt at a joke-that drinking makes them smarter.
Perhaps Ms. Sullivan might be enlightened by some actual statistics on teenage drinking. These are not just some out-of-the-air figures; they come from a 30-year study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
* The age-specific rate of first alcohol use among 12- to 17-year-old adolescents doubled during the last 30 years of the 20th century.
* A 1998 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study shows that of the nearly 8,000 drivers ages 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes that year, 21.2 percent had been drinking and 13.8 percent were legally intoxicated.
* One in 13 teenagers are defined as binge drinkers and rated as high risk for lifelong alcohol dependency.
* A Children’s Defense Fund study indicates more than 400 teens are arrested for underage drinking or drunken driving every day.
In a survey of 168 television episodes commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, alcohol was shown to be featured in 77 percent of the programs viewed, and 4 percent of those broadcasts presented underage drinking. The broadcast industry dodged major bullets from Washington in both the mid-1980s and the early 1990s that would have severely restricted or outright banned alcohol advertising.
Critics have long accused broadcasters of irresponsibility on the issue of alcohol exposure, and after the government’s recent success in legally punishing the tobacco industry, the broadcast world continues to nervously wait to learn whether the beer and wine industry is the next court target.
Nicole Sullivan was anything but a poster child for broadcasters with her comment at the end of “Celebrity Poker Showdown.” Even though she plays a rather villainous mad scientist’s assistant on the Disney series, she should have considered the substantial number of children and teens who follow her career. Her misguided attempt at humor played right into the hands of those who, rightly at times, suggest broadcasters are soft on the issue of underage drinking.
Steve Beverly is a professor of broadcasting at Union University, Jackson, Tenn.