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

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

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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