The Good News: One of the things that I noticed in your best-selling 1992 book Hollywood vs. America was your analysis of the way movie producers are out of touch with the American public’s wants and needs as they relate to movies as entertainment.
Since the writing of that book was based on the prevailing data and statistics of the late ’80s and ’90s, would you bring us up to date as to Hollywood’s ignorance-or willing ignorance-of what the public wants in its movies and television viewing?
Michael Medved: One of the things that has happened since the book came out, and the book played a role in achieving, was the deflation and destruction of the idea that the R rating [restricted: children under 17 not admitted without a parent] was some kind of advantage in marketing a movie. In 1992 there was a great emphasis by studios in releasing as many R-rated titles as they possibly could. Largely that was a response to the kind of movies that directors and producers wanted to make, but it was also based on the idiotic idea that more people embraced R ratings more regularly and more readily than they embraced other more family-friendly ratings. In the book I spent a good deal of time and effort debunking that idea.
There has been a series of studies confirming that research, showing that the R rating is in fact a commercial disadvantage. The result of all of these studies has been a deemphasis on that rating and a higher percentage of PG and PG-13 films. In fact, it has become common, and it never was before, that filmmakers-as part of their contract-have to promise that they will avoid an R rating.
So that’s the good news, that there’s a spreading recognition that people do not really crave harsh language and graphic sexuality and violence. One of the big surprise hits of the summer of 2001 was a G rated film. In fact, one of the most successful G-rated live-action films ever was The Princess Diaries , which is really a charming film. It’s by the maker of Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride , Garry Marshall.
In fact, we’ve seen a whole tendency of some very well-known directors to release G and PG material, directors who were noted for other material. For instance, David Lynch did quite a lovely film called The Straight Story that was rated G-that’s the same David Lynch, the maker of Blue Velvet , rated R. We also had David Mamet, a playwright and filmmaker known for harsh language, release an outstanding G-rated film-really one of the best films of recent years-called The Winslow Boy.
GN: So they can do it?
MM: They can do it, and again that’s worked out fairly well. The downside of all of this, and there is a downside of course, is that to some extent the ratings have slipped. In other words, some movies that will slip in with a PG-13 rating now would definitely have been R-rated 10 years ago. The film that most disturbed me with a PG-13 was a film called Crazy Beautiful , which included very graphic sex and alcohol abuse by a 17-year-old, and it never, never should have been rated a PG-13.
GN: You wrote in your book Hollywood vs. America that, back in 1992, movie producers were attacking religion, assaulting the family and glorifying ugliness. In your opinion, has this condition gotten worse or better today?
MM: It’s hard to say overall. America is a very complex country, and the movie industry is a very complex business. There are aspects of the entertainment industry that are worse than ever. Consider the music business. American popular music has never been so ugly, so profane, so degrading, so lacking in any restraints at all, so ready to promote larceny and rape. American popular music and the music-video industry are in terrible shape. By the same token, television is more sexual than ever before-more intense and edgy sexual references, lots of nuances of some gay sexuality. But at the same time the violence has been dramatically toned down.
GN: Let’s turn to the amount and level of violence and sex in movies and compare what you found in 1992 with what we have on television and in the movies today. How can someone rate the level of violence and sex in movies, by what method?
MM: There are people who actually rate this, quantifiably. What they do is have graduate students watch prime-time TV for a week. So I don’t think there is any question about this. If you look at any of the top-rated television shows, there are no top-rated violent shows right now. They just don’t exist. But there are a lot of toprated sleazy shows. One of the most violent shows on TV is also one of the most critically acclaimed- The Sopranos , available on cable. So it’s complicated.
In terms of movies, there has certainly been a deemphasis on violence. You can’t mistake it. It’s obvious. The popularity 10 years ago of what I call creeps and killer machines-movies with mass slaughter in them, that kind of film-has pretty much slipped from view. They’re just not being made right now. That doesn’t mean that the movie business is going through some kind of renaissance or that things are vastly better. Anyone who looks at the pathetic quality of movies today can’t celebrate.
But there are notable exceptions. One of the notable recent developments was Prince of Egypt , the animated film that told the story of Moses, where for the first time a major studio made an effort to reach out to religious believers of every stripe.
It was generally true to the Bible, though perhaps borderline as a teaching tool. They were very, very careful not to offend anybody’s sensibility. At the same time they made a visually spectacular, entertaining film and a quite successful one. But Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks Studio met with several hundred religious leaders, including people like Jim Dobson [of Focus on the Family], beforehand to have them consult and advise on what they wanted to see in the film-and he actually listened to people.
GN: Did he also involve rabbis in the process?
MM: He did. A number of them, including some Orthodox rabbis, and the film was a commercial movie. But it was such an obvious thing to do to try to get the goodwill of the religious community, and it’s just amazing that it wasn’t done before.
GN: On a related subject, you collaborated with your wife, Dr. Diane Medved, on a book titled Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children From the National Assault on Innocence . How do the media figure into the assault on our children’s innocence?
MM: The book is divided into two fundamental parts. The first part is called the assault, and the second part is called the defense. When we talk about the assault on childhood innocence, we talk about the assault coming at kids from four directions at once.
First is the media, which represent such a huge portion of everyone’s life. Secondly, the schools, where the school system no longer has the least respect for childhood in a sense and in fact makes a point of scaring children often and assaulting their innocence.
The third area is the peer group, and the fourth is the parents, who often play a role in corrupting their own children.
GN: On the subject of television viewing, did you have any connection or collaboration with Steve Allen, whose book Vulgarians at the Gate was published recently around the time of his death?
MM: I did indeed. I knew Steve for many years, and he’s terribly missed. He was an absolutely wonderful man. He really represented a lot of what was best about American culture three and four years ago. He was witty and cutting-edge, and he didn’t change. He was always a decent, wholesome, good man.
What happened was that the culture changed around him. I worked with Steve in a group called the Parents Television Council, where we were both on the board. He and I largely agreed. The only area that Steve and I might have disagreed on is that ultimately I believe the real solution, particularly for people of faith, is not just working for more wholesome, more substantive TV but actually watching less TV, both for adults and children.
I’ve been telling people on my national show, actually telling them repeatedly, that the real problem isn’t the low quality of media; it’s the high quantity of media. Even if the quality were improved, it still would be disastrous for our kids and for us to be spending so many hours a week watching TV. The average American household now watches close to 50 hours a week of television.
One of the ironic things is that there is talk of a boycott by black families of network TV because of their treatment of African-American characters and issues. I think that would be a wonderful idea because there is a huge problem in the African-American community. The average African-American family spends over 62 hours a week with the TV on.
Blacks watch TV much more than whites do, which helps to explain differentials in school performance. It’s become almost commonplace among educational psychologists that if they could cut back on the level of black TV watching some of the differentials in school performance could be reduced.
Children watch too much TV. Parents watch too much TV. It’s a major contributing factor to marital breakdown. My wife wrote a book called The Case Against Divorce , a very controversial book that came out 12 years ago. It was a first of its kind. It was the first book to really attack the divorce industrial complex.
It’s still generating controversy. One of the things that Diane found out in The Case Against Divorce , and we allude to in Saving Childhood , is that this obsession with television is a contributing factor to marital breakdown-and a major contributing factor because couples don’t have time to talk to each other. They are spending a lot of downtime watching flickering shadows on a cathode-ray tube. That does nothing to enrich your marriage or to improve your communication.
GN: Can it also reshape our thinking, say, from a standard of morals that we were raised to follow?
MM: There’s no question about it. But the point that I emphasize in Hollywood vs. America , and that I’ve emphasized in all my work, has been that the real power of TV, movies and popular music is not that someone is going to see something and then run out and immediately imitate it. That happens, but it doesn’t happen with everyone. What happens with everyone is that we allow mass media to normalize outrageous and unacceptable behavior.
That deals with, for instance, language. I don’t think there is any question, for anyone who is sensitive to this at all, of the deterioration in language, the breaking away of moral restraints.
I recently took my 14-year-old daughter on a trip to a big city where I used to live. It was the first time I had been there in three years. But walking down the streets with my daughter was incredible this time.
Of course people, like those on a construction site, would use a lot of four-letter words. For them that’s normal. But here, walking down an upscale street and seeing elegantly dressed people hollering at each other, effing this and effing that-it’s just really collapsed out there. There’s no question that mass media have led that trend. They haven’t just followed it.
GN: So it’s not just a matter of art imitating life.
MM: Right. This is just one example. The other example would be homosexuality. If you read every study, gay behavior is very, very rare. It is not 10 percent of the population. It’s not even 5 percent of the population.
GN: Aren’t those percentages actively promoted?
MM: Yes, they are. Of course, on TV and in the movies there is such a tremendous emphasis on it. This was incredible to me: The Lambda Gay and Lesbian Education Fund released a study showing that gay behavior has gone up dramatically in America in the last 10 years, and nobody is able to figure it out-because they say you’re programmed, you’re born gay, you can’t do anything about it. So why would this behavior go up? The spokespeople for these gay organizations said it was media influence. They said that the normal appearance of gay people in mass media made it more acceptable for people to express their gay sexuality.
GN: Doesn’t that suggest our gullibility?
MM: Yes, it goes without saying because if you see the most glamorous people in the world engaging in some behavior, whether it is violence or promiscuous heterosexual sex or homosexuality or foul language or whatever it is, it provides a sanction, an acceptability, for others to do the same. That’s the whole idea behind advertising. That’s why they have sports stars and movie stars appearing in ads: because you want to be associated with these people, so you’re going to imitate the behavior that you see. It not only works in ads, unfortunately. GN