Lawmakers Seek New Curbs on TV Content

Published September 1, 2007

Members of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have threatened broadcast and cable networks with more expansive content regulation unless they make efforts to tone down the adult language and graphic violence.

Although conservative groups such as the Parents Television Council have long protested the mature content and themes of shows such as CSI, The Shield, and Nip/Tuck, some Democrats, sensing an opportunity to have a stake in a “family values” issue, have begun to join the chorus.

Late June hearings in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives focused on what kids see on TV–with a heavy, judgmental emphasis on violent content.

Cable TV Targeted

Normally confined to content on the five licensed broadcast networks, media criticism these days is being extended to cable, satellite, and even the Internet. Analysts say it probably won’t be long before telecom and telephone companies offering video are targets in the debate.

Although no bills have yet surfaced, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) took center stage recently with a vow to float legislation giving the FCC new authority over violent programming, including an expansion over cable and satellite. His staff said the legislation would likely be introduced after the July congressional recess.

One problem facing such efforts is that without the voluntary participation of the broadcasters and studios, either through “standards and practices” departments or rating systems, laws and regulations restricting content rarely withstand court tests.

A New York-based Second Circuit Court of Appeals in early June ruled against an FCC determination that multiple four-letter words uttered by entertainers in a primetime awards show were indecent. The court remarked that the regulator’s proposed fines against the broadcaster reflected a commission “divorced from reality.”

Martin Battles Hollywood

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin completely disagreed, expressing disappointment on behalf of American families and lamenting what he saw as the excessive ability of media content providers to broadcast adult language with impunity. Martin cited congressional mandates for the FCC to prohibit indecency and profanity on the airwaves and called for lawmakers to explore new parental and consumer tools to give control and choice over programming to supplement the V-Chip screening technology on TV sets that was ineffective in the dirty language case.

Meanwhile, in editorials, news releases, and hearing comments, Rockefeller expressed the same concerns as Martin and extended the discussion to include TV violence.

“The reality is, we can no longer continue relying on the industry to decide what’s best for our kids, nor can we wait around for long-promised new technology to truly filter out violent or indecent content,” said Rockefeller.

“The goal of my legislation isn’t to replace the efforts of parents,” Rockefeller continued. “It’s to empower parents in the face of big-money television producers and networks.”

Rockefeller has expressed concern that many parents don’t know how to use the V-Chip or don’t know about it at all. “I don’t believe the V-Chip is the only answer, and I certainly agree that it doesn’t work perfectly,” he stated. “But until the federal government takes action, it’s one of the only tools we have–and parents should be aware that it’s an option.”

‘Parents Have the Power’

The Senate and House hearings included testimony from the FCC chairman, TV broadcasters, cable operators, filmmakers, advertisers, think tank experts, academics, child psychologists, and child protection activists.

At the House hearings, Adam Thierer, senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, reported on his extensive research on parental controls, including two years of work on a 119-page special report, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods.

“There is a better way to regulate media violence than through government mandates,” said Thierer. “Parents have the power to regulate the media in their lives and the lives of their children. And technical controls like the V-Chip and set-top box controls are only one part of that process. Informal household media rules and third-party-provided content ratings and program information are equally as important.

“Public officials should not act in loco parentis when parents have the power to make media decisions on their own,” Thierer continued. “Raising children, and determining what type of media they consume, is a quintessential parental responsibility.”

Frank Barbetta ([email protected]) writes from Little Falls, New Jersey.

For more information …

Adam Thierer, Parental Controls and Online Protection, Progress & Freedom Foundation, 2007: