Exasperation is widespread, but so is acknowledgment that the problem defies simple remedies such as fines or new filtering technology.
"Before I was a mom, I never thought I would have believed in any type of censorship — but when you have children, it changes everything," said Alicia Burbank, a Snellville, Ga., mother with a 10-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
"Everything from soap opera to reality shows, you never know what you're going to see, whether it's appropriate," she said. "I hate saying this — but at some point the government may need to step in."
Parental complaints about TV programs have existed for decades, yet sex, violence and crude language steadily proliferate. Politicians only periodically address the matter, but now is one of those periods — sparked by the furor over the nationally telecast exposure of Janet Jackson's right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.
"It's almost laughable," said Omaha, Neb., mother-of-four Caroline Odell of the post-Super Bowl reaction. "That kind of stuff is out there all the time. Why is everybody so surprised?"
Parents use a hodgepodge of rules, gadgets and intuition in trying to keep their children away from offensive programming. Some prefer that their children watch videos instead of TV; others try to prevent children from watching except with a parent present.
Odell's children include a 4-year-old, an 8-year-old and two high school students, so the challenges in terms of monitoring TV content vary widely. The two eldest are banned outright from watching MTV; the two youngest, she said, encounter crude language even on ostensibly child-friendly cartoons.
"I'm particular about what I let them watch, and I'm still having problems," Odell said. "The hardest challenge is with the shows that are supposed to be safe."
Though she says parents must exercise vigilance, Odell believes the TV industry deserves blame for failing to keep questionable content off early-evening network shows.
"They have to be held to a higher standard than just 'Parental guidance advised,"' she said. "We absolutely need some enforceable federal controls; the industry can't be trusted to do it themselves."
Karen Koonce, whose family attends the same Omaha church as the Odells, uses a V-chip to screen programming and a filter to block out swear words. She wishes — not optimistically — that the industry could police itself without the need for mandatory standards.
"Nobody's going to agree on what's objectionable," said Koonce, who homeschools four children ranging in age from 3 to 12. "What I find inappropriate for them, someone else is going to find just ducky."
Troylynn Jarreau, assistant principal at a school serving Navy families near New Orleans, opposes tougher government controls of television — she believes parents are best placed to make the decisions.
But she admits to worries on behalf of her 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, and watches TV along with them. "If something's on that's bad, we sit down and talk about it," she said.
At work, Jarreau sees middle-schoolers clearly influenced by racy TV shows — including girls dressed provocatively, like the dancers on raunchy music videos.
"There's a lot of peer pressure," she said. "The more you say 'Don't, don't, don't,' they're going to say 'Why, why, why?"'
Numerous resources are available to help parents decide what their children should be watching. The national PTA publishes a guide called "Taking Charge of Your TV," for example; the conservative Parents Television Council compiles a critique of virtually every prime-time network show.
L. Brent Bozell III, a father of five who is president of the television council, wants Congress to pressure cable TV companies into offering "a la carte" service, so parents can pay only for the channels they want their family to see.
"As bad as broadcast TV has gotten, its nothing compared with what children consume day and night on basic cable," Bozell wrote recently to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Joan Bertin, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship, depicted the Janet Jackson backlash as "election year nonsense" that distracted from more serious national problems.
Bertin said she allowed her own two children — now college-age — fairly free access to TV, "though I felt most of the time there was something more constructive they could be doing."
Looking ahead, Bertin hopes that politicians — who are now proposing to raise broadcast indecency fines — resist imposing program standards.
"I'd love to see the television industry improve its product and think hard about what constitutes good entertainment," she said. "I would not like to see them self-censure because they're afraid the government is going to come down on them."