|By BRIAN LOWRY|
Television often finds itself under siege by critics who insist its handling of sex, violence and language causes ills ranging from real-life violence and a coarsening of society to gout and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Seldom, however, does discussion of these issues emanate from television itself, as it has with notable persistence on "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal," both series created by producer David E. Kelley. Historically, TV executives and producers have exhibited a knee-jerk reflex when someone tries to blame television for bad behavior, using a defense predicated either on the 1st Amendment or of the "Guns kill people, TV doesn't kill people" variety. This instinct to circle the wagons is not without some justification. While many of the industry's most vocal detractors in political, academic and advocacy circles fervently believe television is a negative force, some clearly gravitate to bashing Hollywood as safe, fertile terrain, serving interests that can include fund-raising or simply garnering attention. Another study regarding TV and sex, in fact, will be released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Highlighting the distrust that colors this debate, a similar 1996 analysis was greeted with derision by industry officials when researchers concluded three-quarters of prime-time programs broadcast at 8 p.m. contained significant sexual content--a figure arrived at by counting "flirting" and "kissing" among acts that constituted sexual behavior. If this were true, my formative years, and probably those of many others, were a lot more fun than we previously realized. In this guarded climate, where every appalling act of teenage violence seems to elicit cries from someone about the media's complicity, it's disarming to see media responsibility dissected so thoughtfully within Kelley's series. Each show approaches the topic in ways befitting its tone, exploring whether broadcasting can be taken to task legally for, in essence, polluting the cultural environment. Consider the following plot lines: On "Ally McBeal," a woman sued a Howard Stern-type shock jock for creating a hostile workplace environment with his misogynistic radio routine. On "The Practice," a TV executive was put on trial for contributing to a Dr. Kevorkian-esque assisted suicide by making clear he would air the segment during sweeps. In two weeks, "The Practice" will focus on a case involving a TV report about cockroaches in a restaurant, raising faint echoes of the lawsuit the Food Lion chain filed against ABC News over its hidden-camera investigation. Another episode depicted a judge agonizing over what to do with a 13-year-old boy who shot his mother, citing television and movies among the culprits she wanted to blame for "brainwashing children with violence, all disgustingly denying any accountability." Kelley said he has returned to this theme less as a cause than to mine its dramatic potential. "I think the media is so prevalent in society today it's no longer an industry that comments on what's happened but an industry that contributes to and influences what's happening," he said. Yet Kelley's mere willingness to provocatively tackle such media-related conflict underscores how television virtually ignores these topics elsewhere. Granted, TV and media companies are common prime-time settings and usually portrayed in a less-than-flattering light, from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show's" clownish anchorman Ted Baxter to the self-absorbed characters seen currently on NBC's "Lateline" or "NewsRadio." These are broad caricatures, however, which don't address the real or imagined concerns many Americans harbor about the media's impact on society. Broadcast news in particular does a surprisingly shallow job examining these stories, which become increasingly important with each new media merger or frenzied chase of a major news story. As testimony to Kelley's writing skills, which generally inspire awe among his peers, "The Practice" has managed to bring out the complexity of such matters while still providing captivating drama. Most notably, Kelley's point of entry in looking at the media contemplates not whether the 1st Amendment shields news people or producers from engaging in free expression, but the role self-restraint plays in that process, and where each new televised breach in civility might eventually lead. Although he supported "60 Minutes' " recent handling of a segment showing an assisted suicide, Kelley said, "As I watched it, I just couldn't help but think, 'What if it were not "60 Minutes"?' " It wasn't much of a leap, he noted, to imagine a less principled news program encouraging dangerous zealotry in the headlong pursuit of ratings. In a related vein, Kelley has stated he doesn't think the label "artist" affords someone license, as he put it, "to do anything I damn well please." This seems to contrast with the standard response to critics from many in the so-called creative community, which is that as long as there is a ready audience for distasteful stuff they have the right to serve them the video equivalent of junk food. True enough, but that skirts the real issue--namely, whether a portion of the public's appetite for vulgar material absolves the purveyors of culpability if an innocent bystander gets hurt along the way. It's a question the media must ponder, especially those responsible for the muck that pops up on TV--from late-night slasher movies on pay channels to specials like Fox's "When Animals Attack" and "Shocking Moments: Caught on Tape," which make the excesses foreshadowed in the 1976 film "Network" seem almost quaint. With media now all but inescapable, will these folks fret about boundaries and responsibility, or just their shareholders? Perhaps they need to be armed with Kelley's compass, which, he said, begins with considering how he'll feel when his own children see his work 15 or 20 years from now. "I never want to say I put something on because I thought it would get a great [rating]," Kelley said. "There's got to be something more to it than that." And with that, ladies and gentlemen, the prosecution rests . . . for now.
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