Introduction and Summary

Americans have ambivalent views about the appropriate role for government in curbing sex, violence and indecency in the entertainment media. They have doubts about the effectiveness of government action, and believe that public pressure ­ in the form of complaints and boycotts ­ is a better way of dealing with the problem. They also blame audiences more than the media industry for objectionable material. Significantly, Americans see greater danger in the government’s imposing undue restrictions on the entertainment industry, than in the industry producing harmful content (by 48% vs. 41%).

Nonetheless, there is broad public support for several proposals now being considered for curbing indecent material in the media. Fully 75% favor tighter enforcement of government rules on TV content during hours when children are most likely to be watching. Sizable majorities also back other anti-indecency proposals currently before Congress, including steeper fines (69%) and extending network standards for indecency to cable television (60%).

The latest Pew Research Center nationwide survey, conducted among 1,505 Americans from March 17-21, finds that the tug of war in public opinion about government regulation of entertainment reflects political and religious divides about the issue.

For example, on the fundamental question of whether undue government restrictions ­ or harmful content ­ presents the greater danger, a solid majority of conservative Republicans (57%) cite harmful entertainment. Liberal Democrats, by contrast, overwhelmingly believe excessive government restrictions are the larger concern (by 72%-21%). Similarly, while 51% of white evangelical Protestants say offensive entertainment presents a greater danger than undue government restriction, just 27% of seculars agree.

There also is a significant generation gap, both in attitudes toward government regulation and in opinions about what constitutes offensive content. Americans 50 and older register much higher levels of personal concern than do younger adults about different types of TV material, and are more likely to view harmful content as a bigger problem than intrusive government restrictions. By contrast, those under 30 view excessive government restrictions as a far greater danger than harmful content.

Despite these divisions, however, there are a number of points of broad national agreement on issues relating to entertainment and the government’s role in reducing offensive content:

Most Americans say parents are primarily to blame when children are exposed to explicit sex or graphic violence. Fully 79% say inadequate parental supervision ­ rather than inadequate laws ­ is mostly responsible for children being exposed to that sort of offensive material; there are no significant political or religious differences on this point. And by more than ten-to-one (86%-8%), the public believes that parents, rather than the entertainment industry, bear the most responsibility for keeping children from seeing sex and violence in TV and movies.

There is widely shared concern over what children see and hear from various media, though for the most part these attitudes have remained fairly stable since the late 1990s. Roughly six-in-ten say they are very concerned over what children see or hear on TV (61%), in music lyrics (61%), video games (60%) and movies (56%). An even higher percentage (73%) express a great deal of concern over the internet. Fully 68% believe that children seeing so much sex and violence on TV gives them the wrong idea about what is acceptable in society.

Parents have worries over what their own children are being exposed to in the media, but they give fairly high marks to the tools available to help them make entertainment choices for their families. Roughly six-in-ten parents (62%) say there is enough information available to help them decide whether movies, TV, video games and music lyrics are appropriate. Majorities of parents also say they have at least a fair amount of trust in ratings for TV, movies and video games, as well as advisory labels for music. In addition, roughly half of parents who go online (51%) say they have a filtering system to prevent access to pornography over the web.

Parents also say they are becoming more solicitous in monitoring their children’s TV viewing. About a third (34%) volunteer that they always know what their children are watching on TV, up from 18% in 1997. And 78% say they have specific rules about the type of programs their children can watch.

Pew’s survey on entertainment also highlights the changing nature of the public’s concerns over media content. Americans these days are troubled by much more than sex and violence ­ in fact, sex and violence do not even top the list of people’s personal concerns over TV. Nearly half (46%) say they are personally bothered a lot by TV programs showing depictions of illegal drug use, while 38% voice a high level of concern over reality programs in which real people are tricked or made fun of. And among parents, as many say they worry a great deal over their own children being exposed to illegal drug references as say that about sexual content.

Despite the recent string of controversies over sex and violence in the media, however, the overall image of the entertainment industry has not eroded in recent years. Currently, 60% say they have a favorable opinion of the motion picture and TV entertainment industry, which marks little change from 2001 (58%) or 1999 (60%). A comparable majority (55%) has a positive opinion of the recording and music industry.

But the public continues to have low regard for video games manufacturers. Only about a third (34%) have a favorable view of the makers of video games, about the same as in June 1999. Young people stand out as virtually the only demographic group with a positive view of this industry. A majority of those under age 30 (56%) have a favorable view of video games makers, compared with just 15% of those age 50 and older.