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Muzzled Television The Government’s Content Ratings System Fails The Public, But Stricter Standards Likely To Come

John Carman San Francisco Chronicle

To you, “NYPD Blue” is a gritty police drama with some coarse language and occasional bare bottoms. Maybe you like it and watch it, maybe not.

It shouldn’t be surprising that your federal government has a different take on “NYPD Blue.”

To the government, it’s a health risk that must be processed and categorized.

For the moment, it’s “NYPD Blue TV-14.” Not good enough. It’s like a city with too few ZIP codes. Soon it will become “NYPD Blue TV-14 VSDL.”

Ah, that feels better. But in three years it will occur to Congress that the V (violence), S (sex), D (suggestive dialogue) and L (profane language) warnings are woefully insufficient.

They don’t tell you how much V, S, D and L are in each and every show, and don’t we need to know? Further refinement is required to save us from ourselves. It’s for the children.

So we’ll get “NYPD Blue TV-14 V (subsection 7) S (subsection 5) D (subsection 4) L (subsection 8).”

Much better. Now the Television Parental Guidelines System (TPGS) has some meat, because it has enough letters and numbers to pass for a defense contract.

Your government has done its job. It’s served the public. It’s interfaced!

The only better outcome would have been to require families to submit applications in triplicate and 180 days in advance, with a processing fee, statement of purpose and environmental impact statement, before watching a TV show. Say … there’s an idea.

The new content ratings system is supposed to go into effect on Oct. 1, almost in time to catch all the VSDLing at the start of the fall season.

Strictly speaking, acquiescence to the brokered ratings agreement is voluntary. If you’re a network and you want to be out of favor with the vice president of the United States (and possibly the next president), key members of Congress, the American Medical Association, the national PTA and several other high-toned groups, you’re perfectly welcome to say no. It’s a free country, sort of.

Through some miracle of obstinacy, NBC found the nerve last week to say no. It issued a statement that “as a matter of principle, there is no place for government involvement in what people watch on television.”

A bill has been introduced in Congress to deny broadcast license renewals to stations that don’t comply with the “voluntary” content ratings. That’s V and L in the extreme to NBC, which owns stations in big markets. If the legislation advances, NBC probably will capitulate.

We’ve had the vaguer ratings - TV-G, TV-14 and so on - for several months now. The official line is that they failed because they were too vague. The truth is that they failed because practically the whole country ignored them. Leave it to government to decide that the answer is more letters.

One danger is that the V-chip, which will come installed in new TV sets beginning next year, will add starch to the alphabet soup.

The chip won’t be so easily ignored. Some viewers will activate their V-chips, automatically blocking out offending shows. Consequently, those shows will suffer Nielsen rating declines. The networks, always seeking the widest denominator, will be leery of programming “adult” material.

One small step for Big Brother, one giant leap for infantilism.

Of course, the reform clamor wouldn’t have arisen if the television industry hadn’t gotten careless. Television is guilty of its own form of infantilism, whether it’s heightened savagery on cable or puerile vulgarity on the broadcast networks.

Besides touting matters of principle, the NBC statement bragged that “NBC’s proven system of checks and balances serves the interests of our audiences, advertisers and affiliates.” But the “proven system of checks and balances” has been in conspicuous decline in the 1990s.

Anxious over the growth of cable, the networks scaled back their standards and practices departments and loosened the muzzles on writers and producers. The result was a flood of penis jokes, breast jokes and the monumental discovery that you could now say “ass” on network TV, without the customary donkey.

Cable, relatively unfettered by government regulation, had its own affinity for sex, nudity and, above all, violence. And meanwhile, the broadcast syndication business plumbed the depths of trailer park Americana with Sally Jessy Raphael, Jerry Springer and their ilk.

The cumulative effect, at least among a wide number of ordinary viewers, was the suspicion that television had ceased to be a polite houseguest - well-intentioned if not overly bright - and had turned into an open sewer. No wonder you wanted a remote control to keep your distance.

Television has always been a compliant whipping boy for politicians. Now it was impossible to resist. In 1996, Bill Clinton used the V-chip and the push for program content ratings to co-opt the “family values” agenda from Republicans.

And here we are, getting ready for someone to decide how much V, S, D and L it takes to slap a TV show with a V, S, D or L rating.

The federal government and the television industry, two major institutions with legal responsibilities to serve the public interest, have clumsily failed the public instead.

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