Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2001 / 18 Elul, 5761

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

V-chip fiasco shows folly of political meddling --
A FEW years ago, Congress waved its magic wand, then - poof! - V-chips suddenly blossomed within TV sets across the country.

So why can't our elected representatives now work the same sort of magic to get American parents to make use of this handy-dandy device?

The answer to that question demonstrates the limitations - and dangers - in the government's attempts to protect its citizens from malignant messages in mass media.

In 1996, the Clinton administration pushed through legislation requiring that all new TV sets sold in the United States ultimately include the V-chip - an inexpensive but ingenious device that allows parents to block the reception of material they consider unsuitable for their kids. Each family could make its own choices about which sort of shows to obstruct and which to allow, based on a new television-rating system developed by the major networks. Politicians promised that this high-tech gizmo would revolutionize the way we all watched TV and would liberate worried parents from appropriate concerns about its corrupting influence.

After 5 years, however, this program not only has failed to live up to its hype, but also qualifies as an abject, embarrassing flop. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that only 7% of American parents claim that they use the V-chip - and even that pathetic figure is probably wildly overstated by lying respondents who want to sound sophisticated and responsible to the pollsters.

Meanwhile, more than 80% still feel concerned that their children see too much sex and violence on TV, and believe that such programming negatively influences their children's behavior. At the same time, a majority of families with V-chips installed in their TV sets don't even realize the device is there.

Misguided government policies clearly contribute to this ignorance and confusion. With the V-chip as federally required standard equipment in all television sets sold in the U.S. after January 2000, manufacturers found no reason to advertise or promote this feature. Since all sets must contain the same filtering technology, no company can sell its particular device as a competitive advantage.

It's easy to imagine a very different situation had we relied on free markets rather than federal mandates. Some corporations would proudly promote the V-chip as "a parent empowerment tool" and offer it as one more special feature of their sets - such as stereo sound, on-screen display or better visual resolution. Some people would look for this option in a new TV, and others - particularly those without kids - would not. That's the way free choice functions. Like it or not, advertising represents a major - if not the major - source of information for most Americans. Competitive advertising claims about filtering functions, with rival claims about whether Phillips' V-chip was more sophisticated, or Toshiba's proved easier to use, would teach the public far more about the capacity of the technology than all of the pompous boasts of politicians.

With or without the federal legislation, the added cost of buying a set with a V-chip would have remained minimal - since the technology costs the manufacturer only a few dollars extra (most sources estimate less than $10) to include. Nevertheless, most parents focus more closely on any feature that figures into the price they pay. If you doubt that proposition, try to remember the last time you bought a new car. For most people, it's much harder to recall the standard equipment than it is to remember the options you chose.

While many families might choose to purchase TV sets without the V-chip option, it's hard to believe that the number of people who used and valued the equipment could actually fall below the appallingly feeble figures that apply today.

Another unintended consequence of the V-chip initiative from Washington involves the current content of television - raunchier than ever, according to the media watchdogs at the Parents Television Council.

PTC founder Brent Bozell believes that the feckless rating system contributed to this decline - since producers feel that as long as they label a program for "mature" audiences, they have no further obligations in terms of self-restraint or good taste. If people don't like the harsher language or racier sex scenes, according to this logic, they can always block such programming with the V-chip - never mind that they don't know how to use it and most often don't know it's there.

Despite this dismal track record, leaders of both political parties talk eagerly about new initiatives to clean up popular culture - with ambitious regulations on the marketing of motion pictures a new and passionately promoted panacea. Unfortunately, such efforts only encourage more resistance and a circle-the-wagons mentality in Hollywood - unwittingly interfering with needed internal reforms that would prove far more effective.

History shows that the most successful attempts to elevate the entertainment industry always come from within, in response to public demands. From the early 1930s until 1968, the Production Code explicitly limited the levels of sex, violence and harsh language in motion pictures, and under its strictures, Hollywood enjoyed its fondly remembered "Golden Age." Meddling senators and congressmen might do well to recall that the code represented a set of lasting standards the industry imposed on itself.

Washington's experience with the misbegotten V-chip legislation should suggest that federal solutions to cultural problems, on the other hand, most often prove both meaningless and counterproductive.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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