Curbing Violence on TV
Let the television industry clean its own house, as it did in the past
REMEMBER seeing what looked like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on your television screen? Those were the days when the models in TV commercials didn't lounge around in their underwear and when the cameras in cop dramas cut away from the actual gory horrors of crime.
The seal signified that the station subscribed to the Television Code formulated by the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry group. But in 1982, the courts agreed with the Justice Department that the Television Code, a voluntary set of guidelines on programming and commercial practices, violated the antitrust laws - which is why you haven't seen that distinctive graphic lately.
With the enactment of the Violence in Television Act of 1990, Congress reversed course by allowing broadcasters once again to develop programming self-regulation, at least with respect to reducing television violence. The law allows broadcasters to meet collectively to discuss how violent programming on television can be curtailed voluntarily.
The law waives the existing antitrust ban on broadcaster self-regulation until the end of this year. During this period, broadcasters were expected to develop concrete plans to reduce televised violence, probably by formulating a new TV code. There are no guidelines about televised violence or penalties for failing to enforce them. Nor does the law define what constitutes "violent" programming.
In effect, broadcasters are empowered to do something - or nothing - about the problem of televised violence.
But just how closely will Congress and the Federal Communications Commission be watching? Some members of Congress believe that the likely outcome of the law will be government censorship rather than self-restraint. Supporters of the legislation counter that this type of criticism is speculative at best and is the chord usually struck by those who see Big Brother lurking around every corner.
The law is a good idea, but its supporters may be too glib about dismissing the censorship fears. Nineteen years ago, then-FCC Chairman Richard Wiley, under pressure by Congress to do something about televised violence, told the Illinois Broadcasters Association that "if self-regulation does not work, governmental action to protect the public may be required - whether you or whether I like it." A little more than a month after this speech, representatives from the three networks met to discuss the proble m, with Mr. Wiley and his staff members taking an active role in the meeting.
The networks soon agreed to a list of specific proposals to reduce sex and violence on television. Later, the industry as a whole adopted these proposals through amendments to the Television Code. Wiley reported on Capitol Hill that a solution had been created, and no congressional action was taken.
Wiley, however, was taken to court. His role in helping the broadcasters to adapt their own guidelines was challenged by civil libertarians and the Hollywood creative community as a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on government interference with freedom of speech. The courts ultimately threw the matter back to the FCC, which released a report in late 1983 saying that Wiley and his staff did nothing to coerce or intimidate broadcasters to change their ways.
BY then, the courts also had broken up the Television Code, so that, for the broadcasters, the point was moot. The lesson to be learned here, though, is simple: If the Television Violence Act is to be effective as a law, Congress should resist any temptation to stray beyond the honorable intent it expresses.
In August, the National Council for Families and Television will be convening an industry-wide conference in Los Angeles. With a series of congressional hearings on television violence already completed, the stakes will be raised for the television production and distribution communities to convince lawmakers that fruitful efforts to reduce televised violence are being made.
Congress should defer to industry self-regulation as long as it remains a viable option. Despite the sound of a clock ticking, every incentive should be offered for broadcasters - not government - to put their house in better order. This is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under circumstances where greater congressional scrutiny and potential interference with First Amendment rights looms closer every day.