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Some Want Control In Worst Way

Sat., Aug. 5, 1995

The V-chip sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? Such a cute little name - sounds like a snack food or a stuffed animal.

But people need to stop and take a closer look at this device, which has been proposed by Congress to block violent, sexual or otherwise offensive television programming from coming into the home.

Will the V-chip really provide parental control over television use, or will it simply turn over that control to anonymous outsiders?

With shockingly little political or public debate, the U.S. Senate recently passed legislation to require the installation of V-chips, digital devices that can be programmed by parents to block out coded material in programming, in all TV sets 13 inches or larger as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1995. The House is expected to follow suit in the next few weeks.

Still undetermined is what kind of rating system would be used to code the programs and who would do the coding. Wagging their fingers and playing to the C-SPAN cameras, some members of Congress claim the government will do it if the TV networks won’t, and the TV networks are vehemently against assigning ratings to their programs for several reasons.

“We’re in favor of technology that gives parents more control over what comes in on their televisions,” ABC entertainment chief Ted Harbert told TV critics in Los Angeles recently. “But I believe the technology being discussed now in Congress is not the right technology. A government-imposed rating system is impractical, illogical and, in fact, improper.”

The bad blood between Congress and broadcasters has gotten worse in recent months, with accusations and threats lobbed from both sides.

“For the most part, the people who are screaming the loudest for the V- chip are the people who are going to vote to put assault weapons back on the streets,” said NBC’s fuming West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer recently.

Deciding what is too violent or too sexy is a highly subjective task. The National Coalition on Television Violence, a consumer watchdog group that rated TV shows for violence in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, had such a bizarre system that one list put “Mork & Mindy” at the top because of its slapstick comedy.

The NCTV’s wide definition of violence included slaps, shoves and even yelling. More recently, “Law & Order” has been targeted as a violent show by some conservative groups, but it never shows violence, only the consequences and repercussions of violent acts. Seems like that would be a good thing.

What about emotional violence? Does that count, too? How about name-calling? Sexual situations raise similar questions. Kissing might be too sexy for some people but not for others. Does Homer’s bare bottom on “The Simpsons” qualify as nudity?

Electronically coding each program would be a logistical nightmare, no matter who does it. When the fall season begins, about 100 regular series will air each week on the four major networks, and each of those series will have new episodes more than 20 weeks during the season. That’s a lot of previewing and rating to do, and it wouldn’t help that many programs are delivered to the networks only a few days before broadcast.

Beyond the philosophical and logistical aspects of the V-chip, the networks clearly have an economic incentive to consider. Viewers could wipe out a whole block of programming with the touch of a button, and that doesn’t appeal to advertisers.

ABC already has parental advisories on adult programming, such as “NYPD Blue,” and advertisers have shied away from them. Despite awards, praise and sky-high ratings won by “NYPD Blue,” it still loses money because advertisers are reluctant to be associated with it, forcing ABC to charge lower rates than usual.

Most broadcasters and industry analysts doubt that the V-chip system would survive a court challenge. ABC Network President David Westin, a lawyer who once clerked at the Supreme Court, said he sees insurmountable problems.

“Any government action that enters into rating or censoring raises constitutional questions pertaining to the First Amendment, which protects us from government intrusion,” Westin said in Los Angeles. “Aside from the Constitution, I think it’s bad policy. It’s not something governments do well, and it’s something I think we’ve always been proud our government doesn’t do.”

On Tuesday, the four networks announced the establishment of a $2 million development fund to help companies experiment with alternative technologies to let viewers block programs.

More than a dozen devices already in development wouldn’t rely on electronic ratings. Viewers could block individual programs or channels by date and time, just like programming a VCR. Some of these devices, estimated to cost about $100, could be hooked into existing TVs, making the option more quickly available and affordable.

In the meantime, parents should supervise their kids. Read about shows and try to make informed decisions about whether programs are appropriate for children. Tell your kids specifically what they can and cannot watch; a ban on afternoon talk shows would be a good place to start.

And whenever possible, experts advise, watch television with your children. Nothing else works better.


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