February 9, 1997
Take Your V-Chip and ...
Every now and again, I read something which upsets me. At the end of this article, maybe youíll be upset too. Maybe you wonít be. But think it over carefully, because I think whether or not youíre upset about this is important.
Do we have a Constitutional right to television? And if the answer is no, should we? Think carefully before you answer. Now, Iíll be the first to admit, Iím no lawyer (much to my motherís everlasting dismay). And, in the interest of fairness, I feel obliged to point out that I do in fact make my living in television, writing and producing news at KCAL-TV in Los Angeles. Now, back to the question at hand.
When it comes to the whole V-chip debate, proponents of said chip say yes, we do have an interest in what is transmitted over public airwaves. Those are "our" frequencies being used, and we demand the tools needed to protect our children from being exposed to televisionís ill effects.
Where to begin? Letís start with that premise; that television has ill effects which we need to protect our children from. Simply put, I do not agree. I know a thing or two about television. I often jokingly tell people I was raised by wild televisions. But in actuality, I was raised primarily by a mother who kept me very in touch with the real world, and gave me the tools needed to tell the difference between the fantastic world of television, and the often not-so-fantastic world outside my window. Thanks, Mom! Good work!
Second, this whole concept of "public ownership." Listen, until the government starts giving away TVís, TV stations, the electricity needed to run the dang things, and free government-approved programming (yikes!), I think TV is mostly a private sector affair. After all, when GE rakes in millions in ad revenue on a Must-See TV night, that money goes straight to the network. Granted, when Rupert Murdochís FOX network charges $500,000 for thirty seconds of Super Bowl ad time, some of it may end up in the pockets of a Washington politico ("Any more books in the works, Newt? Well, great! Say, about those pesky network ownership restrictions Ö"), but certainly not through official channels. Unless you are one of those rare people who pick up audio/visual transmissions due to a dental work error, you really shouldnít be that concerned about what flits through the invisible ether.
This is perhaps my most important point of all, so pay attention: If you donít like whatís on TV, DONíT WATCH! For Godís sake, this may be the only way to stop Jenny Jones from killing again! Turn off your TV. Better, throw it out! If you canít handle what comes over that little cathode-ray tube box in your home, you shouldnít have one. Read a book! Talk to your kids! Go to a play! Walk in the park! Surf the net! But how dare you try to impose your will, via your ratings system, on my TV habits. Because, sure as the sunrise, TV will change. When you put such seemingly harmless labels on shows like "TV-14," you brand it with unneeded stigma. Whatís TV-14 for one family may be TV-10 for another, and unsafe at any age for that crazy kid down the street. Come a step further with me; advertisers will withdraw support from any show which is "V-chipped" out of homes. And while in the short term, that may be good (watch those Neilsen numbers for Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer plunge), the same system will also black out excellent, quality dramas like "Homicide: Life on the Street," and "NYPD Blue." Believe me, watching those shows with your kids will lead to some interesting discussions.
If a system is put in place that restricts access to shows, those type of shows wonít get made. Imagine: a producer, faced with the next "Hill Street Blues," or "M*A*S*H," passing on a project because thanks to the wonderful V-chip and ratings system, it wonít reach the widest available audience.
As it is, the current TV ratings system makes no sense. Iíll award a prize to the first person who can tell me the difference between TV-Y, TV-7, and TV-G. (Hereís a hint: there is none.) And still, parents like Karen Tucker, quoted in Newsweek magazine, want more V-chip control, so they can "zap" out harmful content. Hereís an idea: take responsibility for what your kid sees on TV. Donít rely on a magic chip to do your parenting for you. Enough kids are raised by television already Ė do we really want to make it easier?
Listen, parents Ė I canít appreciate your dilemma. I donít have kids, and I donít know how tough it is. But if I told you I had a magic chip which would make it easier for you to dump your kid in front of the television all day, without you having to monitor what they watch, or teach them how to handle what they see Ė youíd probably think it was a good idea. For about three seconds. Then, hopefully, youíd realize that technology is no substitute for parenting. And time spent teaching our children to grow is the most important thing we can do.