TV Ratings

TV Ratings

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 6 1997 3:30 AM

TV Ratings

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       Your question is a tough one. We have always relied on scarcity as the justification for government regulation of broadcasting. That has become a less compelling argument with hundreds of channels available for viewing on television than it was with five. We used to distinguish television from newspapers, saying that the government couldn't regulate newspapers because anyone could start up a newspaper at any time, despite the fact that, as an economic matter, newspapers were increasingly more difficult to maintain. I remember the days when Chicago had more daily newspapers than TV channels. Interestingly, the Internet has given life to that distinction again. With infinite bandwidth, anyone, even everyone, can be a "publisher" on the Internet without worrying about the costs of printing and distribution. But the point remains. As long as there is a limit to the spectrum, we can justify some government involvement to make sure that what is available serves the public interest. I believe it would be appropriate for the FCC to take away the radio-station license of a woman whose programming was racist and anti-Semitic, for example, and give it to someone else. She may have a First Amendment right to have and disseminate those views, but the listeners also have a right to have broadcasts on the limited spectrum in their community serve the public interest.
       Some of the industry people tried to argue that the V-chip was unconstitutional. My response is that if the V-chip is unconstitutional, so is the off button. So is the remote control. So is the parent. A V-chip is exactly like a child-safety cap on a bottle of medication. Any adult who wants the medication without the child-safety cap can get it, even if there are children in the house. Any adult who does not want to activate the V-chip does not have to, even if there are children in the house. But I do not think that the scarcity argument will support further government intervention in the ratings system. We were lucky that, with a little arm-twisting, the networks agreed to ratings. I would have hated having to try to impose such a requirement, and I would have hated even more trying to find a legal and constitutional basis for one. There are only two forces that can make the networks go further to provide ratings that reflect a range of perspectives, including your concerns about content information. Those forces are the parents and the advertisers. So far, neither has applied the necessary pressure to get the networks to do the right thing. The government has done its part, and any more would quite properly be subject to First Amendment challenge. Now it is time for parents like you and David and grandparents like your mother and me to exercise our First Amendment right to speak up, loudly and clearly.
       And it works!
       Look at what has happened already. The network executives must read S

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, because your complaint in last week's piece got across. You criticized the PG rating of an episode of Friends. The next week, Friends was classified for 14 and up. NBC just announced that after giving PG ratings to two episodes of its crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street, it will classify two other episodes as TV-14.
       Remember that the system is only a month old, and we are all still getting acquainted with how it works and how it should work. NBC classifies Jay Leno's show as TV-14, while CBS classifies David Letterman's show as TV-PG. I doubt that most parents would find much of a distinction between the appropriateness of these two shows. Parents need to provide some feedback to the networks, the producers, and, most of all, to the advertisers. Where are they?
       This goes back to my main point. Like every other aspect of child rearing, this depends on the parents. Take a look at this week's New Yorker. There is a cartoon with a caption: "I have in mind a V-chip to be implanted directly in children." Don't we all wish it were that simple?

This exchange is adapted from an article forthcoming in Parents magazine.