SINCE last week's announcement that the major television networks will air parental-advisory notices before some programs, the edge of the debate over TV violence has shifted to a new battleground: whether viewers should be allowed to black out shows containing murder and mayhem.
The electronics industry already has agreed to outfit all United States-manufactured TV sets with a microchip that will allow viewers, at the touch of a button, to block individual programs or entire channels.
But in order to make the technology work, broadcasters would have to cooperate by adopting some form of the motion-picture industry's ratings code. Parents could then program their TV sets to "lock out" programs that carry a "V" rating for excessive violence. That, in turn, could force violent programs off the air since, presumably, advertisers would not support shows that were not available in a significant number of homes.
Leading congressional critics of the TV industry see a "V block" as the logical next step in the battle against violence over the airwaves. In their view, parental-advisory notices won't do much good because parents often aren't home to monitor what shows their children watch.
"We need to see a serious attempt to take violence off the air - not just label it for what it is," says Rep. John Bryant (D) of Texas, a member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and finance. "The parental warnings, in my view, insult the intelligence of the American people.... They are totally inadequate."
But Congress doesn't appear to be in a good position to impose a ratings system on the TV industry. The parental-warning plan seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of some critics on Capitol Hill. And even if Congress could somehow pass a ratings code, it would, in all likelihood, be struck down by the courts as a violation of the First Amendment.
"We won't impose this on you," Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has led the push against TV violence, told broadcast executives at a hearing on July 1.
Thus a ratings code, like the parental advisories, would have to be adopted voluntarily by the broadcast industry. But leading TV executives provide a variety of reasons why they are opposed to the "V block."
* They fear that, if the broadcast networks crack down in this way on violence, they will lose viewers - and advertisers - to cable TV channels that serve up more gunplay. "The notion that the V-chip would discourage advertisers from supporting programming containing violence is very troubling," says Peter Tortorici, executive vice president of CBS Entertainment.
* Broadcast executives say a ratings code paints with too broad a brush, possibly leading parents to block out not only "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" but also "Lonesome Dove" and other critically acclaimed shows. "Our concern is not to have a blanket block-out," says Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment.
* The TV industry is concerned that a rating code would open the door to greater federal regulation of its activities. "We're scared of having this as an additional step of governmental involvement in the decisionmaking process of what's violent," says Thomas Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities/ABC Incorporated.
Instead of adopting a ratings system, TV executives pledge to make a concerted effort to reduce the level of violence in their shows, just as they already have voluntarily reduced depictions of drug and alcohol use.
Reducing violence will be the No. 1 topic at a Los Angeles meeting on Aug. 2 of senior executives from the TV networks, cable channels, independent stations, and production companies. And Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, promises to convene more seminars to encourage writers and directors to reduce the "level of gratuitous violence" in their work.
Technology may help, too. More and more viewers will have access to 400 or 500 channels through cable systems or satellite dishes.
That makes traditional "channel surfing" - which can expose children to objectionable material - less likely. Instead, viewers might use on-screen "menus" more, which could include information about the level of sex and violence in shows.
This process already has started in a small way. Home-satellite companies have been coding their offerings since 1986 to allow parents to "lock out" programs or channels they don't want children to see.
"We have to provide more information, positive and negative," says Charles Hewitt, president of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association of America.