ACLU claims ratings, V-chip stifles TV

Tuesday, March 17, 1998

Although a court challenge to the TV-rating system and the V-chip isn't yet brewing, an American Civil Liberties Union official said her group stands ready to accept a case against the Federal Communications Commission-approved program.

“We don't have anything in the works yet, but we'd accept a case,” said Marjorie Heins, director of the ACLU's Arts Censorship Project.

The FCC last week officially approved a voluntary rating system crafted last year by broadcasters, parent advocacy groups and the Motion Picture Association of America.

While the rating system remains a voluntary program, the commission ordered manufacturers to begin making television sets that can block programs based on those rating codes. The new TVs equipped with the blocking technology, called V-chips, are expected to be available by the end of the year.

According to new commission rules, television manufacturers must include V-chips on at least half of their models with picture screens of 13 inches or larger by July 1, 1999, and on all of their products by Jan. 1, 2000. The commission also requires personal computers with television tuners and 13-inch screens or larger to include the V-chip.

The V-chip is designed to read the six age-group designations, which range from Y, which is rated suitable for children of all ages to TV-MA, which is rated unsuitable for children under 17. Parents could also block programming designated with content codes: V for violence, S for sexual content, L for foul language and D for sexually suggestive dialogue.

FCC Chairman William Kennard praised the standards saying the combination of a rating system and the V-chip “will give parents the tools and power to make their own decisions about television programs they do not feel are appropriate for their children.”

But opponents to the recently approved rating system for television programming say directors and producers may resort to mutilating their work just so they won't get stuck with adult ratings.

“An acclaimed documentary such as Civil War or Eyes on the Prize — which clearly contained lots of
violence, as is appropriate for that subject matter — may be reduced if threatened with a violence-rating,” Heins said.

The rating system was developed in response to the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act. That law required the television industry to find ways to enable parents to block objectionable programs from their homes or else the FCC would step in and do it.

Most of the networks refused to comply with portions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act on grounds that it raised serious First Amendment concerns. But because the law asked for a voluntary, industry-developed system, most eventually relented.

John Earnhardt, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said the program is completely voluntary and that there is no pressure for the networks to comply.

“Now, if it were a mandated program, there would be some serious First Amendment problems,” Earnhardt said.

But the ACLU, which rallied against the ratings program and V-chip when those issues appeared before Congress, remains a strong opponent. In its reports on the V-chip, the ACLU said the threat of FCC intervention if the television industry failed to devise a rating program amounts to censorship.

“Any claims that the TV rating system is voluntary is belied by the existence of the statute, which strongly pressures the industry to create the rating system,” Heins said. “It's clearly not just an innocuous program to provide information to parents.”

Heins points to the continuing pressure from legislators on the remaining holdouts to the rating system as evidence that the program is not really voluntary. “It's inappropriate for government officials to be exercising that kind of coercive pressure on the media,” she said.

Two networks, NBC and Black Entertainment Television, do not use the complete rating systems. NBC has stayed with a simpler age-appropriate rating system while BET doesn't use one at all.

Rep. Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who spearheaded the V-chip legislation, said the two networks were essentially “asserting their rights to plant a 'bug' in the system. Just as a 'bug' in a computer does not render the computer useless, the NBC/BET virus will not significantly harm the operation of the V-chip on every other channel.

“But it is a nuisance and a pain and is totally unnecessary.”

But Harold Furchgott-Roth, a Republican named to the FCC last October, praised the two networks for using their own judgment. He said those networks should look to their viewing audience, not the government, for guidance.

“I salute the courage and fortitude of those programmers, such as NBC and BET, who have resisted political pressure to effectively convert these voluntary guidelines into mandatory regulations,” Furchgott-Roth said. “They should be commended, not condemned, for their independence of mind.”