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Associated Press
Former American Idol judge Simon Cowell has made his mark as one tough cookie.

It's so mean, yet some find it so funny.

"Glee" cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, played by Jane Lynch, interrupts a student's tender expression to fire a verbal torpedo at his self-esteem.

"Yeah, you know what? I checked out of this conversation a minute back, so good luck with your troubles and I am going to make it a habit to not stop and talk with students because this has been a colossal waste of my time."

When he was with "American Idol," talent judge Simon Cowell made a living by roasting contestants. "Hideous. Horrific. That was a complete and utter nightmare," Cowell often repeated, crushing dreams left and right. "You are the worst singer I have heard in my life. You are absolutely worthless. Off you go, see you later."

On the show "Everybody Loves Raymond," Frank (Peter Boyle) and Marie (Doris Roberts) often argued and quarreled until a punch line was delivered.

Frank: "Can't you ever just be quiet?"

Marie: "Don't you tell me to be quiet! I have a mind of my own, you know. I can contribute. I am not just some trophy wife."

Frank: "You're a trophy wife? What contest in Hell did I win?"

Many of today's television programs thrive on meanness and a lack of civility. Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council (PTC), a TV watchdog for parents, said her organization has observed a trend.

"These days much of the humor seems to be rooted in sarcasm, teasing, name-calling or behavior that in other context might be considered close to or akin to bullying behavior," Henson said. "It's not making fun of a situation; it's making fun of another person."

But for others, such malicious actions are entertaining. It's not like anyone is trying to emulate these cantankerous characters, says Syracuse professor Robert J. Thompson.

"If you are watching a highly functional family where everybody gets along or whatever, that is the kind of family you want to live in, not the kind of family you want to watch and be entertained by," said Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture. "Let's face it: Entertainment often means the kinds of things we would never want in real life. I never want to be involved with a New Jersey mob family, but I really liked 'The Sopranos.' I don't myself want to fall on a banana peel, but I like watching it happen on TV."

But what effect does it have on children?

Rob Owen, a TV critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Scripps Howard News Service, doesn't buy the notion that today's TV is "terrible." He says there is more good television airing now than there ever has been, but parents need to apply a full-court press on their children's favorite shows.

"The problem is there is simply more television, period," Owen said. "With more television, that is why it is so important for parents to do their homework, educate and train kids to watch television with a critical eye."

More nasty

In the 1950s, Eddie Haskell was among the meanest of TV bullies.

"Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I'm gonna — oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies."

Much has changed since those sanitized days, Thompson said.

"There are a lot more nasty, mean, belligerent characters on television, or at least impolite characters, than we saw a generation ago," he said. "'Leave It to Beaver' or 'The Brady Bunch' might feature a bully every now and again in an episode, but it was highly stylized and really quite innocent compared to what we see now."

Although creating conflict is part of script writing 101, today's programs, particularly reality television, actively seek characters who will cause problems, Henson said.

"There is deliberate casting, deliberate provocation. Producers behind the scenes are trying to instigate fights between cast members, then get it on camera and boost ratings," she said. "That has given rise to the problem as well."

Thompson pointed to Frank and Marie on "Everybody Loves Raymond as a particular example of nastiness.

"They are extraordinarily mean. For all the people that talk about what a sweet show that was, there was a lot of mean-spirited stuff, a lot of anger and dysfunction disguised as a nice family sitcom," Thompson said. "You wouldn't expect that, but let's face it, it's funnier."

Owen suggested viewers remember that these villainous characters have a role to play.

"Pure bad guys are not put out there like paragons of society," he said. "That is not who you want to be. No kid will see that and want to be bad."

Or will they?

A problem?

If kids see and hear it, they will mimic it.

That has long been the fear of parents in regards to what children absorb from the television. Mindi Israelsen and her husband just turned off their cable for that reason.

"TV does add to bad behavior," said Israelsen, a North Salt Lake mother of three. "(Disney Channel) shows tend to have a good, moral ending, but if kids pick up on the negative stuff …"

Thompson has known kids younger than 10 years old who could recite dialogue from "Sex and the City" episodes.

"Parents should be concerned about their kids being mean and when people are mean to their kids," Thompson said

Does mean behavior on television translate to everyday behavior? Owen isn't sure there is a definitive answer.

"Is television mirroring society, or is society learning its behavior from television?" the critic said. "Would a rational person look at how Montgomery Burns ('The Simpsons') is portrayed and turn around and say, 'Oh, I want to emulate that?' No."

Thompson grew up with the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons. When he reflects on the show now, all he can think is, "Wow!"

"Tom and Jerry were not only mean to each other; they came up with deadly solutions to express that meanness — solutions which were available to me in the household," Thompson said. "Let's put an iron over the door so when the guy walks in, the iron falls on his head. Those cartoons were not only mean, they were fast-paced mean.

"I loved Tom and Jerry as a kid, but I have never hit anybody or killed anybody."

Even so, kids are impressed with what they see, Henson said.

"Kids respond to social cues they get from the media they consume," she said. "That is all too common these days. Too often we make the assumption that because a program is designed for a certain age group, that it is perfectly acceptable for that age group, but that often is not the case. Programs intended for teenage audiences include behaviors that we would not want our children emulating."

Parental discretion advised

There are shows out there that are less mean, but parents should determine what's viewable, the experts agree.

"The TV was never invented to be an electronic baby-sitter. Unfortunately, that is often how it is used," Owen said. "I believe it is the ultimate responsibility of parents to decide what children watch, to be aware of what they are watching, to know what is going on in the media universe. Parents need to watch more TV."

Henson agreed.

"Parents are spread thin, sometimes both are working, and can't always be there," she said. "But it's important for parents to discuss these issues with their children."

Before shutting their television down, Israelsen noticed that when her kids watched too much television, they acted and talked like the characters on their favorite shows.

"It (TV behavior) is impressionable on the kids," she said. "The bottom line is it comes down to the parents reinforcing what is OK and what is not OK. Parents need to make sure kids aren't behaving like that."

It is always easy to blame the media for the problems in society, but Thompson suggests everyone keep a broad perspective. The professor pointed out that in 1911, society was much more polite and well-mannered, but women couldn't vote and African-Americans were disenfranchised and segregated.

"We may have had better manners 100 years ago, but if I had to say which was a better society, I would rather be here than there," Thompson said.

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