TV is [Expletive Deleted]

NOBODY LOOKS FORWARD to a lecture from dad--even if he's America's favorite. So I attended Bill Cosby's Convention Center appearance last Tuesday with a fan's enthusiasm cut with a sense of dread. The Cos has been taking increasingly vocal stands against sex and violence in the media. First, he attacked TV's top-rated black show, Livin' Single, for loose mores and alleged minstrelsy. Then he took similar issue with that paragon achievement of African American cinema, Booty Call, which features Jamie Foxx mimicking the Cos in prelude to coitus. Now he's shilling for the Aid Association for Lutherans, a fraternal organization that's promoting a new cross-media ratings system for parents in its airline-like magazine Cornerstones.

AAL's VP David Anderson, a parent himself, explains that the system, devised by the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family, isn't meant to be the be-all or end-all of in-home guidelines. A good thing, perhaps, because two of the big three networks have recently acceded to offering their own letter-based descriptive ratings (NBC remains a holdout). Still, I wonder who wrote the AAL's ratings, and whether they watch television: NYPD Blue inexplicably gets a green light for sexual content, while Ellen not-so-mysteriously rates "caution" for anyone under 18.

Emcee Colleen Needles kicks the evening off by introducing the catchy slogan, A child never forgets. Next up is NIMF director David Walsh, who persuasively argues that we're in the midst of a media revolution that's changing the way we parent, then proceeds to spiel for awhile about media violence and the "culture of disrespect" it fosters. "We've changed our norms from Have a nice day to Make my day," he says. "And our kids are learning the lesson well." (Note to self: Cancel Magnum Force viewing with girlfriend's 2-year-old son.)

Then: Let the mumbling begin! Cosby is actually in rare, coherent form. "The networks say that the TV set really does not influence anybody," he intones, raising his voice with his great, trademark incredulity. "Then why do they have commercials? Why am I sitting there with Jell-O pudding?"

The question, and its implied introspection, is at once disarming and near heretical. Cosby's next hundred or so tangents always come back to parenting and self-respect, and he cuts closest to the bone when he chides his audience about parental peer pressure. "Most of you want to sit at graduation and watch your child go up and get a diploma," Cosby says. "Or sit there, and then the president says prabruabalohbahbruoh? and you paid $120,000."

Before long Cosby's speech descends into its own spell of prabruabalohbahbruoh--although in this case it comes for free. He praises the sagacity of old people. He browbeats: "Where is your respect?" Cosby keeps demanding. Audience members are left to snatch up what humor and wisdom they can, and when it's over, they give him a standing ovation. Yet I find myself slouching toward the end, unable to put up a mental fight against sentiments like: "I'm the parent of these children, and I'll be darned if I'm going to have one of them go out and blow somebody's brains out because they wanted to experiment with what they saw on TV."

We all know kids' lives are worse than they were 20 years ago. And who can begrudge a father who has lost a son to violence for attacking such creaky mom-and-pop operations as GE and Westinghouse? Still, isn't it also incumbent upon Cosby, a supporter of Jesse Jackson and the Million Man March--a man who would seemingly know the score--to point out that young people's incomes, their living standards, their very self-esteem have all simultaneously fallen through the floor? Banning open-mouth kissing won't help.

Ultimately, TV's politics are scary--what with its endless parade of urban predator boogeymen and its unfettered fete of consumerism. It's even worse, perhaps, than the TV cleaner-uppers are saying. But then maybe kids need to know it's a scary world.

One woman, who is upfront about her allegiance to Cosby and her apathy about the rest of the program, puts it well: "A show that's rated PG-13 or something may be dealing with a subject a child should be exposed to, such as teenage sexuality. If the child is 12, or whatever, and the parents say, 'No, you can't watch it,' I think they may be denying the child some of the benefits of TV. You know those decisions are gonna come up."

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