Screening a La Carte

In a culture that is seen to be spinning out of control, the V-chip has generated an extraordinary alliance across conventional class and political lines, from the Christian right to progressive media reformers, and in Congress, from conservative Senator John McCain to liberal Congressman Ed Markey. According to a New York Times poll from last February, more than 80 percent of parents say they consider the V-chip (or something like it) an indispensable part of their families' information age future.

illustration by Ben AuburnTo its most ardent proponents, the V-chip is a technological Statue of Liberty, the shining light that will help lead parents back to control over the morass that commercial television has become. To its opponents, it's rather less than that: one more example of the quick-fix gizmo worship to which Americans have long been prone. Worse, it's potentially a fundamental threat to civil liberties, part of a new and unwelcome Big Brotherism sweeping the country.

But like it or not, the V-chip is coming; outflanked by their opponents, television broadcasters gave in to the inevitable last year. By law, TV manufacturers must begin selling sets equipped with the device later this year. Already, "TV-PG," "TV-14," and "TV-M," along with "V," "S," "D," and "L" (for violence, sex, suggestive dialogue, and language) flash for 15 seconds at the start of most prime-time shows. After fighting even these simplified letter ratings for years, broadcasters finally conceded as part of the trade-off for the omnibus Telecommunications Act of 1996. The concession was cheap in one sense—the act gave broadcasters huge gifts including new mega-merger opportunities and free spectrum worth billions of dollars. But that didn't make the bitter V-chip pill any easier for them to swallow.

In New York and Hollywood executive suites, the V-chip is seen as the first in a wave of congressional acts that could cut deeply into audience viewing and advertising revenues. For the Big Three networks, already reeling from cable channels' cannibalization of their once-comfortable world, the V-chip and the underlying debate over television ratings have been as welcome as a Toyota once was in Detroit.

But the first half of 1997 seems to have calmed broadcasters' fears, at least temporarily. So far, few parents are paying much attention to the little rating icons, to judge by Nielsen ratings. That was exactly what V-chip supporters warned would happen: Leaving ratings design to the broadcasters themselves would undercut the purpose of the technology. And that fact in turn has spurred TV's critics to gear up for a new round of attacks on the industry, causing many to wonder when, if ever, the fighting will stop.

To Alfred Sikes, former chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the answer is clear: "The only way this fight ends is for the Supreme Court to draw a clear line, to say what can be regulated. I think at some point the Court is going to speak more concretely, but until that happens, this doesn't end."

But relying on the Supreme Court could carry reformers and concerned parents back to ground zero, particularly if the Court chooses to interpret congressional involvement in the rating process as a further threat to the First Amendment. This summer, in two votes (one by seven to two, the other a unanimous decision), the Court struck down the so-called Communications Decency Act, which was meant to shield children from "indecent" material on the Internet. The Court's decision worried many TV reformers and gave cause for private celebration among TV executives.

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But even as it struck down the internet law, the Court signaled it might approve new computer software that lets parents, rather than the government, limit access to pornographic or violent Web sites and chat rooms [see Joshua Micah Marshall, "Will Free Speech Get Tangled in the Net?"]. Such parentally controlled "screening agents," although still in their technological infancy, provide, in the Court's view, "a reasonably effective method by which parents can prevent their children from accessing sexually explicit and other material."

The Supreme Court's distinction—between what goes on the Internet, and who gets to view it—lies at the heart of what is likely to be the next stage in the debate over the V-chip and television. Although Congress has now mandated V-chips for all new televisions, the FCC has yet to set the technical standards and capacities governing the device. With television set manufacturers already tooling up for the 1998 deadline, it will have to do so soon.

If the government tries, via V-chip regulations, to set standards for TV content, chances of Supreme Court support are slim; but if the TV industry is left to set the standards (as seems most likely according to FCC insiders), the results are likely to match what they've been in the last six months: almost nil. The alternative is for the FCC to prescribe a smarter—and more useful— alternative, based on what's already happening on the Internet.

Why not open up the job of rating TV shows to any "screening agent" group— from the PTA to the Christian Coalition, from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization for Women—that wants to do it? Each group would then offer its own judgment about the appropriateness of programs. If the NRA found Married with Children, Beavis and Butthead, or even a televised Natural Born Killers wholesome family fare, so be it; if the Nation or the Unitarians think these shows are destructive, violent, misogynistic trash, fine, let them say so. The screening group, in theory, could be of virtually any kind: nonprofit or for-profit organizations, publications, religious or educational groups, trade associations, enterprising information entrepreneurs. If the National Swimwear Manufacturers want to rate Baywatch as outstanding, they should be welcome to do so.

A parent should then have several options: one is to subscribe electronically to one of the screening agents on a monthly basis. As a new show came on, the specific agent's rating would appear on the TV screen. If the show violated some threshold—say, a level of violence or overt sexuality that a parent didn't want is or her child to see—the show would be blocked.

The ratings themselves could be broadcast through underutilized spectrum now devoted to closed captioning, or via cable (two-thirds of American households subscribe to cable TV). As digital transmission becomes a reality early in the next century, parents would have even more options, including scanning several screening agents for comparative ratings.

Using their TV remote controls and a personal identification number (like those now used for ATMs), parents could override the screening agent and watch whatever they want. Of course, clever adolescents (who resets the VCR in most homes when it blinks "12:00-12:00-12:00"?) might try to crack the system, but they'd have to discover their parents' PIN.

The attractiveness of the system is that it keeps government out of the business of judging TV content and yet refuses to trust broadcasters to act in something other than their own self-interest. (Been to a PG-13 movie recently?) But, given the thousands of shows on every day, wouldn't it be impossible to implement? Not if the screening agents were paid, say, a dollar a month by each subscriber—something like 2 to 3 percent of what most Americans now pay for the privilege of cable, with the charge itself part of the monthly cable statement. Multiplied by hundreds of thousands, potentially even millions, of subscribers, that would add up (in the words of the late Everett Dirksen) to real money. And that money would often flow into the coffers of some worthwhile, and often cash- starved, nonprofit groups.

Initial costs to establish the ratings would be high for the screening groups, of course. But given the extraordinary number of reruns, and the fact that new series generally adhere to their own internal standards show after show (no one would ever confuse Touched by an Angel with NYPD Blue), the job would smooth out rather quickly. After all, as every TV Guide reader knows, those same programs already have their own unique four-digit codes, put there to help record programs on your VCR when you're out of the house or otherwise unavailable.

For jurists and civil libertarians, letting parents choose among intermediate groups for screening advice gets the dangers of Big Brother censorship out of the picture. For parents, the groups help do the otherwise impossible job of monitoring the programs spewed out by the growing number of channels. For the screening groups themselves, especially worthwhile nonprofits, the opportunity is for new public service and much-needed revenues from their supporters.

Broadcasters will initially object if they see it cutting into total viewing— as it likely might. But left to endless battles with Washington, the alternatives could prove worse. After all, hasn't it been the broadcasters themselves who justify what they put on the air with the line, "It's not us, it's the audience who watch the shows"? Why not let the audience watch what they truly want, including what they want their children watching? Screening agents won't solve all the problems of what Newton Minow, the former FCC commissioner, famously dubbed our "vast wasteland," but it's still a step worth taking, and one that breaks the impasse between what television now is and what millions of American parents say they would like it to be.

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