In a FoxTrot comic from April 1, 2012, 10-year-old Jason Fox, the youngest in a family of five, sits alone on a purple recliner in front of a television set as Season 2 of "Game of Thrones" is announced.
"Woohoo!" he shouts in the first panel. "My nine-month wait is over!"
Outside the Sunday comics and in the real world, some kids are just as enthusiastic as the fictional Jason Fox. Sixty-five "teen and kid" viewers, some as young as 9, have posted reviews of "Game of Thrones" on Common Sense Media, a website that "rate(s), educate(s) and advocate(s) for kids, families and schools." The reviews call the TV series "fantastic," "realistic" and "the best TV show ever."
The young viewers are echoing critical consensus. On metacritic.com, Season 4 of "Game of Thrones" has an overwhelmingly positive score of 94, based on the opinion of 29 critics. The fantasy TV series that airs on HBO was a nominee for outstanding drama series at the 2014 Emmys.
Elsewhere on Common Sense Media's website, an official review describes the show as featuring brutal violence, nudity and "no-holds-barred" sexuality, along with explicit sexual and profane language. "Game of Thrones" is designated “not for kids.”
So, where were Jason Fox's parents?
The definition of a "TV show" has changed, and any notion that the television format designates some type of content safeguard is out of date. Original TV series are everywhere, from networks to cable channels to streaming services. And as such programming soars to new heights in popularity and critical acclaim, content-conscious viewers can no longer assume that there are ceilings when it comes to depictions of sex, violence and language.
With so many options and so much accessibility, the task of monitoring what children are watching can be daunting. But experts and media observers say that parents, by educating themselves about the realities of modern entertainment and having open discussions with their children about family values, can successfully raise responsible consumers of media.
The current TV landscape
Many parents with children in the home today grew up on broadcast network programs like “The Cosby Show” and “Full House.” They may have become acclimated to the idea that if it's on TV, it can't be too extreme.
But according to experts, this mentality no longer holds true. Long gone are the days when original content was found mostly on broadcast network television, where Federal Communications Commission regulations against "obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts" are in play.
On today's TV landscape, a good segment of the most popular television series features graphic violence, explicit sex and nudity and/or unregulated profanity.
According to Melissa Henson, director of grassroots education and activism for the Parents Television Council, the most important thing for parents to know is that "there is no regulating authority on cable television."
"So basically as long as they’re able to find advertisers that are willing to pay for it, it’s going to air," Henson said.
The FCC prohibits indecency and profanity from airing on broadcast networks — the major ones being ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and The CW — between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. According to FCC regulations, profanity includes highly offensive swearwords, such as the f-word, although it depends on the context of the use. Indecency is defined as sexual material that is "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."
Such FCC jurisdiction does not apply, however, to basic cable channels such as FX, AMC, IFC, TBS and TNT, premium cable channels such as HBO and Showtime, and streaming media services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
These paid entertainment venues are now dominant forces when it comes to original programming, producing five of the six nominees for outstanding drama series and four of the six nominees for outstanding comedy series at the 2014 Emmy Awards.
Among the drama series were eventual winner "Breaking Bad" (AMC), "Game of Thrones" (HBO), "House of Cards" (Netflix), "Mad Men" (AMC) and "True Detective" (HBO). While each show varies in the type and degrees of content, parental advisories found on IMDb.com reveal multiple instances of mature content. "Breaking Bad," the story of a high school teacher turned drug dealer, has high amounts of violence. "House of Cards," a political drama, features strong profanity and "almost every episode has a sex scene that includes nudity." "Game of Thrones" is given a 10 out of 10 rating for both sex and nudity and violence and gore, and a 9 out of 10 rating for profanity.
The outstanding comedy series nominees featured "Louie" (FX), "Silicon Valley" (HBO), "Veep" (HBO) and "Orange is the New Black" (Netflix). According to IMDb.com advisories, "Louie" is characterized by frequent sexual humor, "Veep" has "non-stop uses" of strong language and "Orange is the New Black" is given a 10 out of 10 rating for both sex and nudity and profanity, and an 8 out of 10 rating for violence and gore.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon make many popular series available for "binge" viewing at any time. Netflix subscribers are likely to see "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black" promoted on their homepage, while Amazon subscribers will be given several HBO offerings, including "True Blood," a vampire series filled with graphic sex, violence and profanity, according to IMDb.com.
Broadcast is changing, too
The success of original cable and streaming service programming is changing broadcast network content as well, according to Sierra Filucci, executive editor of parenting content for Common Sense Media.
"In terms of content itself, I think you can definitely trace a shift over time of more violence and more sex on network TV, and I think that that is related to so many more channels, and especially more cable and premium channels, that are really pushing the envelope in terms of content,” Filucci said. “The impact is that there is less on network prime-time TV for families to watch comfortably together, and that’s really disappointing for a lot of families.”
While the aforementioned FCC standards define indecency "by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium," it's difficult to determine what exactly the average American would find offensive.
Henson calls it a "loosely defined, very nebulous standard."
"It's very subjective," she said. "I think if you were to ask the average person on the street, 'When was the last time you saw something indecent that shouldn’t have been on television?' I bet 90 percent of the people you would ask would say, 'Oh, I saw something yesterday.'”
Filucci agrees that standards for network TV vary.
"You can't just trust that because it's on network TV it's OK for our families," she said. "You really have to pay attention as a parent, especially if you have really strong beliefs about what you want your kids to be exposed to and what you don't want your kids to be exposed to."
Moreover, the FCC's enforcement is limited, according to Henson. The organization does not monitor television content on its own; it only fines stations that show indecent content after it has been aired, and as a result of viewer complaints.
“People are fond of throwing out the word censorship, but that’s not truly what’s really happening,” Henson said. “Censorship is prior restraint. ... But the FCC doesn’t actually go in there and tell the networks, 'Oh, you can’t air that.' They can only react to things they have already aired, and even more, they can only react to things that have already aired that people have filed complaints about.”
Ratings and descriptors
TV viewers may be familiar with the rating symbol that appears in the corner of the screen at the start of most shows. Similar to Hollywood, TV has voluntarily implemented a system to rate content based on age-appropriateness. Shows are rated from TV-Y (all children) to TV-MA (mature audience only), with various levels in between. Many shows include content descriptors that provide further information, such as "D" for suggestive dialogue and "V" for violence.
However, while Hollywood movies are rated by an independent organization, the Motion Picture Association of America, TV series are rated by the creator of the show or the TV network.
"The content ratings are self-imposed by the creator of the TV show or the network,” Filucci said. “So I guess you can use that as a general guideline, but it's certainly nothing to trust implicitly. Just like somebody who's trying to sell you something. You're not going to believe every single thing they say."
Because ratings are self-imposed, they aren’t necessarily consistent between shows. The Parents Television Council conducted a study in December 2013 comparing the seven most violent cable dramas with the seven most violent broadcast dramas in the fall 2012 season. The study found that the broadcast shows, which were all rated TV-14 for "intense violence," actually had equal amounts of violence to the cable shows, six of which were rated TV-MA for "graphic violence."
"The system's failure to effectively warn parents continues to translate into children being exposed to graphic adult content," the study concluded.
Congress passed an act in 1996 requiring all TVs after 2000 to include a V-Chip, a device that allows parents to block content based on the TV ratings. But this protection tool is only as accurate as the TV ratings.
"(The ratings) are not what many conservative families would agree is spot on or accurate,” said Monica Cole, the director of onemillionmoms.com, a branch of the American Family Association. “Be aware of that. The TV-14 is supposed to be, as the guidelines say, appropriate for 14-year-olds and above, and it really is not. You may want to then check out what letters follow that 14."
In Henson's opinion, television content got exponentially worse once TV ratings and the V-Chip were instituted.
“Basically, (the ratings are) a way for the entertainment industry to act like they’re doing something about it without actually doing something about it,” she said. “It’s not actually a tool to help parents, it’s a tool to help the industry. Because now the networks can put that stuff out there and they can say, 'Oh, we rated it TV-14, or we put that V descriptor on there, or we put that L descriptor on there, so if your kid saw something, it’s your fault. You’re a bad parent; you weren’t using the TV ratings. Shame on you.'”
What parents can do
According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 71 percent of youths ages 8 to 18 had a TV in their room in 2009. In addition, kids these days are accessing TV media online through a number of different sources, including smartphones, tablets and computers.
"Now kids are watching TV on their phones, on their iPads, on their computers,” Filucci said. “Sometimes they're in their rooms. ... These things are super mobile. They're watching at their friends' houses, they're watching at school. Just purely as a matter of accessibility, there's a little less that parents can do to control or influence what their kids are watching on TV."
However, parents can use streaming media to their advantage. Sites like Netflix and Amazon have parental controls that can be set and password protected. While the controls aren't exactly sophisticated, they give parents the ability to choose what level of shows are appropriate for their family.
But parents' most effective defense against objectionable content may be simple vigilance.
"Just stay informed and know what your children are watching," Cole said. "I know it sounds basic, but so many children have TVs in their room and (parents) may not be aware of what they’re seeing. ... Just because it's a family channel, I can’t stress enough, that does not mean it's OK for family viewing."
Henson recommends "limiting the number of internet-connected devices within the home."
"Keep all that media in a central location in the house — in the family room, so if you’re cooking dinner you can peek in from time to time and see what’s on the screen," she said.
There are several online resources available for parents to get detailed information about the content of TV shows, including the Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media’s TV review guides and IMDb.com. These guides provide unbiased reviews of programs and details of what kind of content is found in a program.
When unwanted content does arise, Filucci advises parents to use it as an opportunity for discussion.
"I think it all comes down to sort of old-fashioned parenting, which is just talking to your kids, expressing your values, telling them what your expectations are, and when they cross boundaries, talking to them about that and what that means, and offering consequences,” she said. “And helping them ultimately become responsible and independent enough to make their decisions on their own.”
Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: [email protected]