This week, NC Family president John Rustin talks with Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council (PTC), about ABC’s new television show, The Muppets, and why the PTC is warning parents that this is not a show for children.
INTRODUCTION: Tim Winter is president of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan media watchdog and education organization.
Tim is with us to talk about ABC’s new TV show, The Muppets, and why the Parents Television Council, or PTC, is warning parents that this is not a show for children. We’ll be talking with Tim about the program, and particularly a new study of The Muppets that the Parents Television Council conducted.
JOHN RUSTIN: When most of us think about Jim Henson’s, The Muppets, we think back to the 80’s and 90’s and the cute, fuzzy, iconic and generally family-friendly characters that both kids and parents could enjoy together. But ABC has brought The Muppets back to primetime television, and it’s certainly not the same show that it used to be. How does the new Muppets compare to The Muppets we remember from years ago, and why has the Parents Television Council been warning parents about this new version?
TIM WINTER: I think you hit the nail on the head when you used the word “iconic” in terms of this television show. The Muppets is truly, if not the most iconic children’s television shows in history, then it’s certainly one of the most iconic shows in history for children, and for families. It’s hard to imagine a program more family friendly in terms of its history than the Muppets. I don’t need to belabor it, but when you think about a poster child for healthy family viewing, I can’t imagine a better picture than The Muppets. Sadly, what the folks in Hollywood seem to have done is take this and shift it into an adult direction. And even the show’s producer said that, “rightfully or wrongfully The Muppets became more of a kids’ product over the years.” And I’m thinking, rightfully or wrongfully? They’re puppets about animals that are cute and adorable—why would [he] say that rightfully or wrongfully it’s become a kids’ product? And what he has said, overtly, is that they want to take this Muppet show and push it in a direction that they’ve never been pushed before.
JOHN RUSTIN: As I mentioned earlier, PTC has conducted a study of this new Muppets program. Tell us about that study, and what it involved?
TIM WINTER: The Parents Television Council’s research department [has] trained analysts who watch and monitor what’s on Primetime broadcast television. We noticed an increasingly concerning amount of what I would consider age inappropriate content on The Muppets on the first four episodes of the show. So we looked at the first four in great detail, and believe it or not, almost every three minutes, there is adult-themed content that is airing in The Muppets. This is a show that airs early in Primetime, [so] certainly, any reasonable parent would think this is appropriate for a child, and the rating of the show is TVPG, which means, for parents, this is appropriate for children.
JOHN RUSTIN: Tim, talk a little bit about what you mean by “adult” content, what types of things are we talking about here?
TIM WINTER: We’re talking about sexual innuendo, sexual references, drug and alcohol use and abuse. We’re talking about sitting in a bar with the characters getting drunk on alcohol, drug references and drug jokes. And this is the type of thing that really, I think, runs afoul of any honor and integrity towards a brand that was built on the back of children and their parents.
JOHN RUSTIN: Are these new characters, new Muppets who have come on and infused this negative vibe onto the show? Or are these some of the more iconic Muppets that we would recognize from the days of old?
TIM WINTER: Sadly, it’s Kermit and Miss Piggy, and the characters that we have seen for decades. I mean Miss Piggy and Kermit are, I guess you could say, the lead actor and actress. You don’t think of puppets as being actors and actresses, but they’re the main characters, and yet they’re the ones delivering most of the sexual content in the form of their lines, in terms of what they’ve spoken on the show. So when you’ve got the most iconic characters delivering the lines, it really has a bigger impact. Like you just said, it could be somebody we don’t know, or somebody new, but these are the characters that we know and love best, and they’re the ones who are delivering almost half of all the sexual content in the study—[it] was delivered by Kermit or Miss Piggy.
JOHN RUSTIN: Is it just the lines, the words that are spoken, or is it actions and activities that are taken within these episodes that are are so concerning?
TIM WINTER: You [see] Miss Piggy talking about plastic surgery for her breasts and her rear end, and then she kind of puts her hand and gives a little bit of a push like what she’s talking about. Miss Piggy, cosmetic surgery, really? It’s more than just the descriptions. It’s also the depictions. Then, you have alcohol use, when they’re sitting there in a cocktail lounge and everybody’s drinking beer and wine and cocktails, and they’re getting inebriated. It’s more than just a passing reference, you see it, and it’s a long scene. It isn’t just a quick passing reference, but several minutes of conversation and dialogue in the bar while they got further and further inebriated and drunk, and that’s has an impact on the viewer.
JOHN RUSTIN: Tim, as someone who has been involved in reviewing and exposing inappropriate content in a lot of broadcast television, how would you respond to a parent who says something like, “Oh, you’re just being a prude! This is maybe 20 or 30 years since the original Muppets has come out, and it’s a different society, so it’s OK.” How would you respond to a parent like that? And what makes this particular program so disturbing to see it go in this direction?
TIM WINTER: When you turn on television today, there is just a tsunami of graphic sex, graphic violence, graphic profanity, sexualization of woman, disrespect for authority and disrespect for the law, and twisted portrayals of human beings just across the board, on almost every channel you turn. There is no alternative today, or there are very few alternatives today. And here you have a brand, The Muppets that should be a safe alternative for families, and for children. You can certainly take any character and put it into an adult situation, and adults could nod and wink, have a chuckle about some thing, but this is a brand that children believe is for them. When children see the Muppets, they believe it’s for them, and they tune in, and they should be able to do so. And that’s what I guess has us just so disappointed in what is already an overwhelming toxic environment for entertainment. When you take a child’s brand, something that should be safe, and turn it into something that is not safe, how much farther can we go? I think it’s really desperate.
JOHN RUSTIN: I think that’s an important distinction to consider because we have seen shows like the Simpsons and Family Guy—cartoon-type programs that are really intended to be adult-themed. And just by virtue of it being a cartoon, some parents could be confused about it and think, “Oh this might be safe for my child to watch,” without really considering the content. But I think this is a clear distinction in taking an iconic program that was known to be to be child-friendly, and it’s turned around to be a crass and inappropriate display, using those exact same characters, and that is what makes this so disappointing. And we see this, Tim, more and more in television these days. Oftentimes, programs that purport to be family-friendly are really not.
Why do you believe that we continue to see such a disconnect between the kinds of so-called family programming that Hollywood produces, and the programs that most families want to watch, which are wholesome, have good moral messages, and are safe for the entire family to sit down and watch together?
TIM WINTER: I’ll do my best to answer it based on my experience living here in Hollywood and working in the entertainment industry for most of my career. I don’t think anybody here in town gets up in the morning thinking, “How can I possibly offend and hurt children and families.” What I do believe is that they have a view that is just so dramatically different than than the entire marketplace, who is there to consume what they produce. You have folks who come here to Hollywood to make their living… if they grew up in the mid-west or in a conservative traditional situation, and if they feel disenfranchised with that, if they feel bitter or angry about that situation, it seems like so many of them come to Hollywood and try to enter the entertainment industry, and create programming that kind of allows them to express their unhappiness about that situation. And I don’t know why, but it seems to be—I don’t want to say a conspiracy—but it certainly seems to be consensus here amongst the producers and the studio ranks, that they produce program for their own peer groups, not for the masses who actually pay the bills. You know, it’s business 101, to find your marketplace and make sure you’re marketing to those who could be your consumers. But what Hollywood seems to do is we’re going to produce what we want, and we don’t care who it offends, and you’re gonna have to pay me for it. It’s kind of upside down in terms of a business model. Whenever you have a very high quality, high production value, family-friendly program that the whole family can enjoy together, it tends to be just off the charts successful in terms of its financial reward. The family-friendly movies that really are family-friendly tend to be the biggest blockbusters of the year. The same thing goes for TV shows, if it’s really truly family friendly, but also good quality. And that’s what Hollywood seems not to understand—family-friendly to them equates to low production values and schlocky stuff. And that’s just unfortunate.
JOHN RUSTIN: It is. And Tim, I’m sure that many of our listeners out there are somewhat shocked to hear what has happened with the reinstitution of The Muppets, and are wondering what they can do, not only with this, but other times when inappropriate content pops up on the TV while they’re watching with their families. What are some things that parents can do to make sure that ABC and the producers of The Muppets hear their concerns about this program, and other programs similar to it?
TIM WINTER: It’s easy for most parents and grandparents to feel overwhelmed, unhappy, angry, upset and frustrated, but also that they “can’t fight city hall,” as the old saying goes. But the reality is, they can. By being quiet, you’re allowing this to continue, so we urge people to be vocal. You can join the Parents Television Council, it’s free, just go to our website parentstv.org, and click and join for free, and learn and lend your voice to ours. Make it a bigger and louder chorus, and we make sure that parents are informed. We also make sure that the advertisers who support these shows hear from parents to say, “Hey with your advertising dollars, you’re underwriting harmful material that children are consuming.” And so if we speak out loudly to the advertisers, if we talk to the TV networks, if we talk to our elected officials in Congress—the FCC is supposed to be overseeing the public airwaves to make sure they’re being used in the public interest. I don’t know how much of the stuff today is serving the public interest, but they have to hear from us or else they don’t act.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a great encouragement to our listeners, and I will just say that there are not many people who actually decide to get engaged. And if the people who are listening to this program will take the time and become active on this issue and other issues, it can make a tremendous difference. Everybody has to play their part, [so] if you see something on television, especially broadcast television, or [hear something on] broadcast radio, that you have concerns about or that you believe is inappropriate, then take action.
Tim, I want to give you an opportunity to repeat your website, and to tell our listeners where they can to go express their concerns about this. How can they seek an opportunity to air their concerns through the Parents Television Council?
TIM WINTER: You can learn [more], you can become an activist, and you can become an informed parent or grandparent at parenstv.org. And if any of your listeners have ever seen a child’s face when they saw The Muppets for the first time, or when they saw Miss Piggy and Kermit come on, the child’s face brightens. Let’s not allow The Muppets to become just another casualty of Hollywood’s crass opinion. Let’s speak up together on this!
JOHN RUSTIN: I do want to encourage our listeners to definitely speak up and visit the Parents Television Council website at parentstv.org. Again, that’s parentstv.org.
And with that, Tim Winter, we’re out of time, but I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and for your incredibly important work at Parents Television Council. We really appreciate all that you do.
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