Exorcising the demons of television

Monday, February 22, 1999

Our night terrors from things that go bump on the television screen
continue. Recent dispatches from the cultural wars:

  • Telealarmist Jerry Falwell solemnly warns the nation's parents that
    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.

  • The Christian Action Network tracks down 25 homosexual characters in TV
    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.”

  • Perhaps anticipating these advances, the new president of NBC
    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
    he's gay.”

    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
    it out.”

    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:

  • Some advocacy groups are complaining that those who rate the programs
    are not strict enough.

  • New software has been developed that allows the blocking of individual
    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.

  • An Arkansas entrepreneur has on the market software that will edit out
    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.”

  • And one of the nation's largest makers of televisions is manufacturing
    sets with V-chips capable of blocking news, sports, commercials and other
    unrated content.

    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
    the next.

    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 pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.