Kid Media Monitor: What parents should know about today's cartoons

By Branden Hurst

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

Saturday morning used to be the time for cartoons, from "Looney Tunes" to "Scooby Doo" to "Garfield and Friends."

Today, viewing choices for children have become a much larger market for television networks. Dedicated cable channels offer round-the-clock cartoons such as Cartoon Network, which launched on Oct. 1, 1992, and split again on April 1, 2000, creating Boomerang.

At the same time, broadcast networks like Fox have several prime-time cartoons, including their "Animation Domination" block that airs Sunday nights. There is also the increased popularity of adult-oriented cartoons such as "The Simpsons" and "South Park."

Networks have been creating an increasing number of animated sitcoms with their adult demographic in mind. In an effort to educate viewers, the U.S. Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which decreed television sets be manufactured with a V-chip. This chip would allow parents to block television based on a voluntary television rating system for its shows called "The TV Parental Guidelines."

The rating system is broken up into seven categories: "TV-Y" for all children; "TV-Y7" for children older than 7; "TV-Y7 FV," which is also for children older than 7 but includes fantasy violence; "TV-G" for general audiences; "TV-PG," which contains some material parents may find unsuitable for younger children; "TV-14," which contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age; and "TV-MA," programs that are specifically designed to be viewed by adults. The last three categories also have specific notations regarding content, including suggestive dialog (D), coarse language (L), sexual content (S) and violence (V).

Studies have shown these ratings are not always accurate. In August of this year, the Parents Television Council released a report in which its analysts viewed 123 episodes of the top-rated cartoons among the 12- to 17-year-old age group as identified by Nielsen Media Research. It found a total of 1,487 incidents of explicit sex, drugs and/or offensive language. Of those incidents, 206 were sexual references in TV-PG-rated shows, which was higher than the 171 counts found in TV-14 programming. The report also mentions 565 counts of violence (211 of those were in TV-PG-rated cartoons), as well as almost 600 counts of profanity and 208 instances of drugs or alcohol.

In February 2011, Legacy, a national public health organization dedicated to reducing tobacco use in the United States, published a new study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that reviewed more than 70 episodes of top-rated prime-time television shows popular among 12- to 17-year-olds such as "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons." Its findings were consistent with the Parents Television Council's findings — 50 percent of shows rated TV-PG depicted tobacco use as opposed to 26 percent of the TV-14 content.

Current legislation does not restrict advertisements during child-centered programming, creating another potential problem. The TV Parental Guidelines website also states that advertising is not rated, and therefore, cannot be blocked. Many times, a viewer can see an advertisement for R-rated movies or other adult-oriented advertisements during these cartoons.

What then, can parents do to make sure their children are watching programs that are considered appropriate? A few solutions have been gaining traction among parent advocacy groups.

The first is a change in legislation on the TV Parental Guidelines, making them mandatory and holding networks accountable for misleading or incorrectly labeled programs. However, agreeing on what should and should not be enforced would be difficult, while enforcing it would be even more troublesome, if not impossible.

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