California Kids Lacking In TV Aptitude

SACRAMENTO -- California's embattled school system was rocked by more bad news yesterday, as a new study published in Science indicates that more than half of California's ninth-graders watch TV below grade level. In a test of basic skills, only 43 percent were able to recognize wealthy crime figures as evil characters, laugh at appropriate times during situation comedies, and correctly interpret the listings in TV Guide.

See also...
... by Andrew Rosenblum
... in the Whoa! section
... from September 30, 1999

"This downward trending in television literacy is a fundamental challenge to our ability to market new products to the young," said Secretary of Education Richard Reilly. "We are truly a nation at risk."

While the poor results are indisputable, politicians and educators are fighting about where to place the blame. Conservatives are demanding tougher standards and testing, whereas liberals are emphasizing that even with an unprecedented number of cable channels and syndication outlets, contemporary television really sucks. The report estimates that 95 percent of programming during the '98-'99 season sucked, and that the figure could be as high as 98 percent, depending on variations in the Judge Judy data.

"In the past, the TV has been a babysitter -- latchkey kids would come home and flop down in front of the tube," says Stanford child psychologist Constance Kerrigan. "What we're seeing now is a generation of teenagers who are saying 'I'm not going to watch this crap, it's taking time away from what's important -- getting wasted in the park, taunting the weird kids, and looking for someone to have sex with.'"

"The schools are partly to blame. But education begins at home," says Mary Fleischer, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers. "When parents get back from work, all they feel like doing is reading a book or listening to a symphony. But what this study says loud and clear is that if you can find an old Pam/David Baywatch on cable somewhere, you should take the time to watch it with your kids."


Andrew Rosenblum writes about music for Mother Jones, has served as an assistant producer for NPR's "Jazz From Lincoln Center," and is a first-year graduate student at UCLA.