Exorcising the demons of television
Our night terrors from things that go bump on the television screen
continue. Recent dispatches from the cultural wars:
Tinky Winky, one of the Teletubby characters in the popular public
television children's show, is homosexual because he/she/it is purple, has a
triangle for an antenna and carries a purse.
shows and launches an all-out offensive targeting Congress, the Federal
Communications Commission, and the TV networks. CAN is demanding a warning
label on all such programs: HC for “homosexual content.”
Entertainment sounded retreat back in January and pledged to reduce the
amount of sexual content in his network's programming.
It seems downright old-fashioned to obsess about television demons these
days since we have so many shiny new ones on the Internet. But there is
something about that evil box in the corner of our living room that keeps
whipping us into frenzies of fright.
Not that the good old fears — sex, violence and trash talk —
aren't bad enough, but for those charged with saving us from perdition it is
helpful from time to time to unearth new demons lurking in our TV sets. The
alleged gay menace on television seems to be readymade for a new campaign to
control what producers can produce, networks can air and people can
And the Christian Action Network, which claims a nationwide membership of
250,000, seems just the group to lead the anti-menace forces into battle.
CAN's previous 15 minutes of fame came last year in its efforts to generate
opposition to the National Endowment for the Arts. CAN mounted a sidewalk
exhibit of objectionable art in front of the NEA building in Washington,
D.C., that had passersby gagging. A similarly grotesque exhibit in Salt Lake
City met with similar results. But then you have to fight filth with
So, the Christian Action Network is now fighting what it considers a
conspiracy to convert into homosexuals our children and anyone else not
alerted to the infiltration of our TV programming.
One of the coming events energizing the CAN campaign is that HBO plans to
air in June a program called “The Sissy Duckling,” which CAN president
Martin Mawyer says HBO describes as “a fuzzy little yellow bird who learns
Actually it's not just the programs, says Mawyer. You have to watch out for
the commercials, too. Homosexual messages are hidden there, he says, but you
have to have finely tuned sensibilities to detect them. “These commercials
are called 'gay vague' because homosexuals understand the advertisements are
directed toward them. But the so-called straight community just can't figure
CAN has not yet called for labeling these stealth commercials GV for 'gay
The chilling aspect of such demagoguery, of course, is where it might lead.
The possibilities beckon. After all, the TV rating system designed to
implement the V-chip for television was hardly difficult to achieve. A few
hearings in Congress, a few threats from elected officials, some panic by
the TV industry and suddenly last March 12, without fanfare or much
attention from the press, the FCC announced that it had adopted something
called “TV Parental Guidelines.”
The guidelines require that half of all TV sets with 13-inch or larger
screens manufactured after July 1 this year will have the V-chip technology.
After Jan. 1, 2000, all the rest will have the technology. So will personal
computers with TV tuners of that size.
The guidelines also codify rules for those little icons appearing in the
upper left-hand corner of your TV screens for 15 seconds at the beginning of
a program (or when you touch a remote control button after the V-chips are
installed). Since October 1997, TV shows have been rated in six different
age-maturity categories as well as content indicators for sex, violence,
language, suggestive dialogue, and fantasy violence. Thus for adults, the
label TV-PG SVD means a program with sex, violence and suggestive dialogue;
for youngsters, of course, it is code for “a really cool show.”
But the CAN offensive proves that there is no satisfying those who want to
dictate what comes into your living room through your television set:
are not strict enough.
segments within a program, raising the issue of whether more than 1,000
hours of programming each day could be ordered rated scene by scene.
offensive words and substitute viewer-friendly language, although there is
some collateral damage to understanding. For example, an early version
rendered the name of actor Dick Van Dyke as “Jerk Van Gay.”
sets with V-chips capable of blocking news, sports, commercials and other
Proponents of the V-chip insist that the TV rating system is not about
censorship but about providing more information for the consumer.
For its part, the Christian Action Network apparently doesn't see a
contradiction between calling for labeling of TV programming and its court
battles against a West Virginia law requiring it to label all of its
solicitation letters with a public disclosure statement.
Consistency is one of the first casualties in a cultural war.
Rationality becomes one of the walking wounded early on, too. For example,
if the advocacy groups trying to “clean up” television are successful, they
may well make watching TV so safe that there is absolutely no reason to
watch it. Certainly there won't be much reason to go there for new ideas,
bold statements, creativity, stimulation, originality, variety or
And that brings us to the overall problem of rating systems, whether for
comic books, movies, television, records or video games.
They are an end-run around the First Amendment, allowing the government to do by coercion what it cannot do under the Constitution.
They homogenize and sap all the energy from the medium, robbing it of
individuality and potential.
They substitute arbitrary standards and reduce decisions about artistic
merit to a formula.
They deny the audience a choice and advocate conformity and uniformity in a
society that thrives on the value it places on individuality and
And as if that were not enough, each rating scheme becomes a rationale for
Once started, it is next to impossible to stop because the goal is not more
information; it is less information. The purpose is not to clean up the
medium or the message; it is to control it. The approach is not reason and
persuasion but ignorance and coercion. The result is not a better America
but one molded in the likeness of charlatans and bigots, people who either
do not know the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness
— between freedom and tyranny — or just don't care.
Paul McMasters can be contacted at email@example.com.