V-chipping away at your TV choices

Monday, May 17, 1999

We move ever closer to the day when the government will be watching ever more closely what you watch on television.

The latest reminder of that possibility: Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard announced last week the establishment of a “V-Chip Task Force” to monitor this summer's rollout of the technology and ratings system designed to “help” parents screen out programming they find objectionable.

That sounds innocent enough. But consider the context.

Chairman Kennard made the announcement right after attending the White House Strategy Session on Children, Violence and Responsibility, where a good deal of what is wrong with our society was laid on television and other entertainment media.

It comes in the midst of a flurry of congressional calls for legislation limiting our media choices and suggesting that a government-approved standard for what we see and hear will make our lives better.

It comes as President Clinton this weekend paused while asking Hollywood moguls for campaign funds to lecture them about violence in the media. The president said the entertainment industry should change its ways, suggesting that it had a role in the school shootings in Littleton, Colo.

“There'll be no call for finger-pointing here,” the president said, and then pointed a finger: “There is still too much violence on our nation's screens, large and small.”

And so the campaign to “improve” television continues.

Late last week, the Benton Foundation released a TV viewers' “Bill of Rights,” which calls for more restrictions and obligations on the television industry that some would find in contradiction to the real Bill of Rights.

The foundation is particularly anxious for the commission to act on recommendations made by the Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, popularly known as the “Gore Commission” because it reported to the vice president. Among the commission's recommendations were more public-interest obligations for the television industry, including more educational television, charging commercial TV fees to finance public and non-commercial television, providing free time for political candidates, and a voluntary code of conduct.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the commission's recommendations: “The report includes 10 specific recommendations for increased regulation of broadcasting but not a single suggestion of where regulation could be reduced or eliminated,” wrote Professor Laurence H. Winer, a member of the Public Interest Council of The Media Institute.

The point of all this is that the FCC and Chairman Kennard are under increasing pressure from the White House, members of Congress, and public-interest advocates to regulate television. The industry itself shows a willingness to temporize to protect its franchise.

No one speaks for the ordinary television viewer, who may or may not like the idea of programming suitable only for children or which must meet the exacting standards of such custodians of public morality as William Bennett, Congressman Ed Markey and Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

That is how we wound up with the V-chip follies. In a previous panic over crime and violence, Congress passed and the president approved language in the 1996 Telecommunications Act requiring television manufacturers to embed in the bowels of new TV sets a computer chip that would enable the blocking of certain programming. The law also required the television industry to come up with a “voluntary” rating system for programming — or the FCC would do it for them.

Last year the FCC issued an order adopting the ratings system and technical requirements for the V-chip, but not without considerable rancor and wrangling. The industry first submitted a “voluntary” age/maturity-based system, which it implemented on Oct. 1, 1997, but was soon forced to add “voluntary” content categories designating sex, violence, language, suggestive dialogue and fantasy violence. Now they are those little icons in the upper left corner of your TV screen.

Even some members of the FCC voiced misgivings about this whole thing. “It cannot be gainsaid that the First Amendment prohibits government from either abridging or compelling protected speech,” said Commissioner Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth. “This Order should not be interpreted as a basis for future governmental efforts to compel adherence to the industry guidelines at issue in this proceeding.”

Commissioner Gloria Tristani, however, strongly supported the FCC's involvement in these regulatory efforts. “I am hopeful that all video programming distributors will perceive the public interest in making the V-chip a more effective and easy-to-use tool for parents to block programming that they deem harmful to their children.”

Commissioner Tristani was tapped by Kennard to head up the new task force announced last week.

So as the task force monitors the implementation of the V-chip system, perhaps the rest of us should contemplate that happy day not so far in the future when sitting beside us in our living rooms is our very own government representative, remote control in hand and a twitching thumb poised above the ON/OFF and MUTE buttons.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.