Parents Have the Tools to Control TV Content

Published March 1, 2006

The Senate Commerce Committee held yet another hearing in mid-January about “cleaning up” content on broadcast, cable and satellite TV, and the Internet. One senator after another, as well as some of the media critics who get called to testify at these things, claimed parents are helpless in the face of all the media that bombards their kids these days.

What’s so troubling about calls for increased media regulation/censorship in the name of “protecting children” is that it ignores the fact parents have at their disposal many constructive alternatives to censorship.

Parents can tap the many new screening and filtering technologies to limit their children’s access to certain content. In addition to the “V-Chip” capabilities integrated into all televisions today, which give parents the ability to screen content by ratings, cable and satellite set-top boxes offer locking functions for individual channels so kids can’t watch without a password. Parental controls are usually just one button-click away on cable and satellite remote controls. Parents can also request cable companies block specific channels entirely.

VCRs, DVD players, digital video recorders (DVRs), and home computers also give parents the ability to accumulate libraries of preferred content for their children. If certain parents believe their children should be raised only on reruns of Leave it to Beaver, these new media technologies can make that happen.

Mobile Content

Even mobile content can be filtered or controlled using innovative new technologies. Firefly Mobile, for example, is already marketing a tiny, voice-only phone for kids–it has just five buttons on it. Two of the buttons have small icons symbolizing mom and dad, allowing the child to call them directly via pre-programmed numbers. It comes in a number of colors and contains a variety of accessories geared toward kids. But the important thing here is that it gives parents a great deal of control over what their kids can access on their cell phones.

Meanwhile, industry-led groups and other organizations have developed new parental empowerment tools and Web sites to help families learn more about media content, parental controls, and ratings systems.

TV Watch, a coalition of 27 prominent individuals and organizations representing more than 4 million Americans, sponsors initiatives such as the 1-2-3 Safe TV tool kit for parents. The group circulates materials that provide parents easy-to-understand primers on how to safeguard their children against objectionable content. The effort was spearheaded by Viacom, News Corp., and NBC-Universal but also includes groups as varied as the American Conservative Union, the Black Filmmakers Foundation, Center for Creative Voices in Media, The Creative Coalition, Minority Media & Telecommunications Council (MMTC), and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Pause-Parent-Play coalition offers a wonderful compendium of Web sites and services parents can use to learn more about the media their children might want to see, hear, or play. The effort is sponsored by an amazingly diverse coalition of companies and associations, including Wal-Mart, the Girl Scouts, YMCA, Microsoft, Comcast, Time Warner, News Corp., and the Electronic Software Association. The coalition’s Web site features numerous links answering questions about how TV ratings and screening tools like the V-Chip work and provides links that help parents better understand how to use these technologies.

Industry Steps

In November 2005, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), the wireless industry’s trade association, unveiled a set of “Wireless Content Guidelines” industry members would follow “to proactively provide tools and controls to manage wireless content offered by the carriers or available via Internet-enabled wireless devices.” Under the guidelines, wireless carriers pledged not to offer any adult-oriented content until they have created controls to allow parents to restrict access.

In sum, the V-Chip, various ratings systems, set-top box parental controls, new Internet and mobile media filtering/screening technologies, and other technological tools like DVRs give parents multiple layers of technological protection at their disposal. And these industry-led educational efforts prove the media operators are taking steps to help parents make content determinations on their own.

So the next time your hear censorship proponents say parents do not have the tools to make informed decisions about what their children watch on television, give them this list! In a free society, citizens have the right to make such choices on their own. Luckily, the new technologies and services mentioned above make that job easier for parents.

Adam Thierer ([email protected]) is senior fellow and director, Center for Digital Media Freedom, at the Progress & Freedom Foundation.