TV Violence: Let Parents Decide

POLITICIANS from the president on down are trying to get their friends in the commercial television business off a very hot seat. They're proposing that set manufacturers be required to install a so-called "V" (for violence) chip that would empower parents by letting them electronically snuff out programs coded as unsuitable for children.

A bill to this effect has already passed the Senate. Politicians see the V-chip as a face-saving way for an industry without a conscience to pretend it has one.

Program producers are dragging their feet on formalizing a rating system that would electronically code programs as too violent or prurient for children. Under the proposed system, producers would rate their own work, as the movies do. Critics liken that to letting the foxes decide who gets into the henhouse. Others complain that the V-chip would undermine the free-speech rights of the industry. Market uber alles advocates haul out the Big Government scarecrow, insisting that responsible parents don't need Washington to tell them what to do.

The clash among these three competing interests - free enterprise, the welfare of the young, and the First Amendment - obscures common sense. It is always useful on such matters to talk to Peggy Charren. The patron saint of "vidkids" proposes a sensible way through the rhetorical mist: Have the parents, not the industry, rate the programs and decide what to block from their home screens. Ms. Charren is founder of Action for Children's Television and is largely responsible for congressional passage of the Children's Television Act of 1990.

Charren says she would scrap the V-chip. She proposes instead that manufacturers install an electronic "scrambler" in their sets. The scrambler chip is already in some advanced digital sets and could be adapted to our analog sets. While the V-chip gives the power of choice to an outside party, the scrambler allows parents to decide. Using a remote keypad, they could convert specific programs to hash by selecting what channels to scramble and what times to scramble them - similar to setting a VCR to record a specific program.

Customarily, it's the rightful province of the parent to decide who's welcome at the hearth and when to bar the door. The Charren scrambler would extend parental discretion to producers of sleaze. It overcomes the problem of having either the broadcast industry or a government agency decide what is violent, indecent, or obscene. Parents would, as parents should.

The scrambler would deal neatly with the problem of defining violence and discriminating between gratuitous "telebrutality" and the necessary instruction of a child about life. With a scrambler, parents could discriminate between the appropriateness of stories with a violent edge on the evening news and "Diagnosis Murder," or between Ken Burns's "Civil War" and "NYPD Blue." Parents hesitant about making the choice could base their scrambling judgments on zapping charts formulated by peer groups of their liking: the national PTA, the local church, or the American Family Association, for example. Scrambling as a parental right would render moot the issue of a corporate producer's First Amendment rights.

Parents must persuade the holdouts among the five Federal Communications commissioners to stop dithering and impose channel usage, or spectrum fees, on TV stations that refuse to sensibly schedule quality children's programs. The proceeds would be dedicated to "kidvid" on those stations that will.

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