Some of my most vivid childhood memories revolve around Sunday evenings at 6:30 pm. Back then my siblings and I would gather before our family’s black and white television set breathlessly awaiting the latest episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. Would tonight’s offering hail from one of the many Disney kingdoms - Tomorrowland, Adventureland , Fantasyland, Frontierland – or perhaps from some other distant realm not yet unveiled to us? Huddled in our dressing gowns, with our after-dinner hot cocoa and crumpets (sorry, no American translation), we would spend the most engaging, felicitous hour of our week, sharing a program with millions of others who were similarly absorbed.
Well into our early teens, the name Disney remained synonymous with the tastes, aromas and snuggled warmth of our family den on those Sunday nights – and the valuable time spent with our overworked parents.
With children of my own now, I have searched high and low for that Disney on television and find that it barely exists. The Disney Channel does offer some of the old programming. But most of its schedule is devoted to fast talking, plot driven teen sitcoms in which my children lose themselves with the same abandon with which we once gave ourselves over to The Wonderful World of Disney.
But with a significant difference: they are no longer watching children’s programming.
Any adult who views even one episode of these programs will recognize immediately that they are as distant from traditional family entertainment as we were once from Tomorrowland. Adult dialogue placed in the mouths of ten, eleven and twelve -year-olds skirts close to sexual innuendo; situational comedies present pre-pubescent children with adult dilemmas which demand adult responses. Boys and girls in high school trade banter and personal jabs that would not be out of place in an episode of Sex and the City. One can’t watch these shows without feeling that the boundary between “family” and “adult” entertainment has all but disappeared.
But even this pales in sheer lubricious content when compared to the far more successful and desired programming run under the Disneys ABC Family Channel affiliate. Here you can encounter versions of the The Sopranos Lite – programming which ranges from harrowing tales of child molestation to the outright celebration of teenage promiscuity.
Perhaps that is why none of us should be surprised by Disney’s latest offering – Roommates which debuted on the ABC/ Disney Family channel on March 23. The ” roommates” in question are four teenagers, who jump in and out of each others’ beds with the abandon of the six protagonists from Friends. The comedy looks nothing like a childrens show and yet it is placed at a time slot where children as young as six, with a nimble thumb and a distracted parent, can locate it and then gulp it all in.
Equally distressing is Disney’s The Secret Life of an American Teenager. This show, Disney’s biggest hit, depicts such scenes as teens in bed with one another, underage drinking, a father peppering his daughters with questions about their sex lives and a pregnant girl in hospital awaiting the birth of her child .
And if that is not enough for you, try Greek, set in the belly-shots-and-wet-T-shirts world of college fraternities and sororities, or Lincoln Heights, a drama about growing up fast in a crime-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood where single mothers struggle to keep their children shielded from a life of crime.
Welcome to the new Disney “family.”
With the abdication of responsibility inherent in the broadcast of such prurient fare, one does have to wonder how Disney itself justifies this modern volte face on traditional family values. Well, Anne Sweeney, President of Disney’s ABC affiliate was asked that very question by the Los Angeles Times in February and told us: “The best way to resonate with your audience is to be authentic and you’re only authentic if you are holding up a mirror to your audience and saying, ‘I see you.’ “
Television shows don’t make it to air, of course, without the backing of big sponsors – and most of these shows have them in spades.
In the same interview that caught Sweeney in a moment of repose, Pat Gentile, a top ad buyer for Proctor & Gamble and co-chairman of the Alliance for Family Entertainment, added:
“I’d love for these shows to be ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ but that isn’t going to happen. Family programming is all about bringing families together to watch shows so that they can dialogue about these sensitive topics.”
Sensitive topics? Dialogue? Television executives and big name advertisers have, it seems, decided that what we all need is a heavy dose of family therapy and the best way of achieving any psychological breakthrough is to thrust societal problems, our priapic urges and our manifest dysfunctions in our childrens’ faces, the better to deal with them.
Of course this is a lie. Television executives and advertisers consider nothing but market share when giving the green light to such shows as Roommates and The Secret Life ( which was, incidentally, originally titled, The Sex Lives of American Teenagers). Not surprisingly, The Secret Life is ABC’s top rated show and Roommates looks likely to give it a nudge.
What does this do to a child’s subconscious development and sense of his or her place in the world? That is the question all of us should be asking ourselves when considering whether to continue to pay our cable bill from month to month.
The rejection of authority, the reversion to aberrant behaviors, the willingness to push boundaries are all related to family breakdown and dysfunction in American households. And these are the very situations television peddles while reminding us how deficient we are in forthrightly addressing our family issues with our children.
There is no greater evidence for the impact that such programming can have on our teenagers than the career trajectories of several former members of that once totem to wholesomeness - Disneys Mickey Mouse Club. If you want to look in the eyes of shattered innocence, then look no further than the likes of pop icons Britney Spears, Christina Arguilera and Justin Timberlake. All graduate Mouseketeers, they have today transformed into virtual soft porn entertainers who traffick in exhibitionism, sexual provocation and an aggressive promiscuity that would make any 1960s Disney television executive blush.
What do we do about this? Well I, for one, have turned off my television, canceled my cable subscription and written to Disney in protest. My letter, however, was addressed to dear old Uncle Walt.
Someone, somehow had to inform him that the “wonder” seems to have fled his Wonderful World, and we are all the sadder and poorer for it.
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