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Watch Out, NOW's at it Again

When I got an e-mail this spring asking if I wanted to assist the National Organization for Women in its television-monitoring campaign, I toyed with the idea for ten minutes. I wanted to go because I was honestly curious how this group consistently managed to misread television programming, but I really didn't want to have to monitor Dawson's Creek and then jump into a discussion afterward, which was the proposed activity for my local monitoring group. In the end, I decided against it: I felt I haven't seen enough of Dawson's Creek to be able to accurately critique it, so whatever I would have said wouldn't have reflected the show as a whole, and would therefore be worthless as a way of assessing it.

Would that those who did serve as "field analysts" for NOW's "Watch Out, Listen Up! 2002 Feminist Prime Time Report" had felt the same way. The final report is an embarrassment, and does more to discredit the argument that television has some gender issues than it does to support it.

It's never a good sign when a report starts off by getting basic facts about television wrong. NOW makes an understandable error in the first paragraph of its report when it talks about "the six broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN and the WB" because almost nobody remembers that PAX is also a broadcast network, but it's an error nonetheless.

We get into real trouble in the second paragraph, which reads:

"These six networks transmit programming over the electromagnetic spectrum (known as "the airwaves"), which is a public asset owned by the people of the United States. The 1934 Communications Act established the practice of granting free broadcast licenses to networks and local TV stations with the requirement that they "serve the public interest, convenience and necessity." The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress do not enforce this obligation and broadcasters feel little pressure to live up to their part of the deal. While license-holders pay nothing for the use of this valuable resource, they make billions of dollars selling people's viewing time to advertisers."

First of all, the electromagnetic spectrum is "owned" by nobody; it's merely regulated by the government as a result of a series of National Radio Conferences held between 1922 and 1925, which have been cited in nearly every broadcast case to hit the Supreme Court since. As for the duties which broadcasters must discharge in exchange for the airwaves -- there's nothing there saying they have to do it during prime time, which is why all the programming that's good for you is on at 6 a.m. on Sunday. Therefore, starting off by claiming that television networks are reneging on their part of the broadcast deal is not an argument I'd want to stake a report on.

Then again, I wouldn't write "excessive sexual exploitation and violence create a hostile environment on TV, and the lack of content addressing social issues leaves people uninformed and isolated," because that's not true either. I can appreciate NOW desiring to concentrate their efforts on a small, specific segment of television-watching, but the entire report assumes that prime time network television is representative of the medium as a whole, and that assumption is flat-out wrong. Ask anyone who watches daytime television. Better yet, ask anyone who watches cable. It's hard to make the case that television is hostile to women at 11 a.m. on any given weekday, or when a cable package includes Lifetime: Television for Women, the Oxygen Network, and The Learning Channel.

So what we have is a report that's really about 21 hours of programming total per week, as opposed to the 168 in the 24/7 world of television, which examines six channels instead of the twenty to one hundred available to most television viewers. From this narrow slice are broad generalizations made.

Well -- from a narrow sample and an analysis process that leaves a lot to be desired. Based on the "analysis process" portion of the report, NOW's analysts judged a show based on a quota system, its violent content, its sexual exploitation, and its social responsibility. Nowhere are concepts such as a show's premise and execution, quality of writing, or entertainment value listed as a criterion. This explains why NOW gives ER, Judging Amy and Providence A+ ratings.

No, I'm not making that up. Three of the most unwatchable shows on television are A-OK with NOW.

The problem with the report and the ratings is the complete vacuum in which NOW's rating criteria operate relative to the show as a whole. Boston Public earned a B+ from NOW, a grade that will surely surprise anyone who watched the show and remembered the enterprising young miss who swapped blow jobs for votes, the Lolita who compromised her older teacher, the surrogate unwed mother, and the teen prostitute. That's a show with a systematic pattern of treating its female characters as sex objects first, people second, and it gets a B+ while shows that bother to take the time to explore women as complex characters -- Buffy and Alias, for example -- earn Cs and Ds? It's evident that these shows were graded on a grid, and not examined for any thematic execution whatsoever.

If you're going to study prime-time, then study it: get people to watch an entire season of a show so they can note trends in the writing, get a grasp on the sensibilities of the show-running team, and see how the series does as a whole. Get people to look at the freakin' premise of a show: CSI gets repeatedly dinged for its violent content and sexual exploitation, but it's a show about solving murders. Short of filling week after week with people choking on mah-jongg tiles, you're not going to be able to evade either sex or violence.

The fatal weakness in NOW's report, however, is its inability to understand why people watch prime time television. NOW repeatedly insists that television has a responsibility to be socially conscious and representative of reality, and not once do they examine the slate of shows they assessed and address the possibility that people watch these shows for entertainment value. In other words, NOW is expecting prime time to be one thing when it is clearly another, and so any analysis of prime time is bound to fail by its criteria.

And the thing is -- prime time television does have problems with sexism. It is disconcerting that David E. Kelley has amassed a body of work dedicated to treating women as sex objects and suggesting that smart, career-oriented women are deeply flawed individuals. It is disheartening to see one fat dullard after another sporting a babelicious wife while there's not a single example in reverse.

However, it's insulting to hear characters zing each other by saying that they write like a girl, got beaten like a girl, or argue like a girl -- as I did on The West Wing -- and discover in the report that those comments don't tarnish the show's grade as an A- haven for gender equity. It's insulting because it's lazy. What that grade tells me is that whomever watched the show didn't bother to look beyond a checklist to see what was really playing on the screen. And that's not the only show that got misread -- which makes me question exactly how accurate any of the assessments are.

If the report demonstrates anything, it's that critically assessing prime time television isn't as easy as asking volunteers to fill out a checklist. So long as NOW's issuing poorly structured, deeply misguided reports, it's going to be harder to take any complaints about sexism on prime time television, or television as a whole, seriously.


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