Press Box

The FCC Wants To Kill Your TV

In the name of saving your children.

A scene from The Black Donnellys

When the government announces a desire to “protect” children, what it’s usually got on its mind is new ways of controlling adults.

In response to a request from members of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday released its study  of the effects of violent television programming on children and the legal feasibility of regulating such content.

The study confesses that the FCC’s previous interventions designed to shield children from violent content have failed spectacularly. Since 2000, all new televisions with screens 13 inches and larger have had to include FCC mandated V-chips that read the “voluntary” rating applied to programs by producers. (The “V” stands for “violence.”) By manipulating V-chip settings, parents can block programs they deem too violent, too sexual, or too crude for their children to watch. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation published in 2004 found that only 20 percent of parents who know they have a V-chip-capable set have ever used the technology. That number is probably high. In a Slate piece, Thomas Hazlett recounts a study in which 110 families with children were given new V-chipped TV sets, and most got extensive operating instructions. At the end of one year, 77 families reported that they’d never tried the device, while just 8 percent claimed to be using it.

Rather than interpreting the general snubbing of the V-chip as a cue that parents don’t yearn for greater government participation in their viewing schedules, the FCC concludes that the V-chip system—which it designed—is “of limited effectiveness in protecting children from violent television content.” The FCC study indicates that the V-chip is too hard to use, too hidden from users, and the “voluntary” ratings system too forgiving of violent and sexual content to be good screening agents. The FCC notes one unintended consequence of the “voluntary” ratings system: Some young viewers rely on them to find explicitly sexual and violent programs. It’s “Daddy, I really want to see that R-rated movie” all over again.

When Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and 38 other House members contacted the FCC, they wanted its opinion of whether legislation restricting excessively violent programming could be written that would pass constitutional review. Not a problem, replies the FCC, citing the laws and regulations that sequester sexually explicit or “indecent” programming into the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. “safe harbor” in the name of protecting children. The commission continues:

We also believe that, if properly defined, excessively violent programming, like indecent programming, occupies a relatively low position in the hierarchy of First Amendment values because it is of “slight social value as a step to truth.”

The commission concludes that, oh yes, let’s expand the FCC’s power to regulate broadcaster content with a new law, but cautions Congress on the difficulty of actually defining excessive violence. One person’s example of gratuitous media violence is another person’s idea of a film classic, a fantastic war documentary, or a brilliant newscast from an urban riot. But far from being daunted by the perpetual needlework of OK’ing one kind of violence because it’s artistic, historical, or newsworthy but nixing another as too wanton, the FCC appears to relish the idea of refereeing all television programming everywhere. Imagine that, a federal agency keen on increasing its oversight powers!

The Supreme Court decided in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation that the government could regulate “indecent” broadcasts because the medium was “uniquely pervasive,” that is broadcasts “extend into the privacy of the home and it is impossible completely to avoid.” (What, no off switches on those radios and televisions?) The cherry on the top of the Supreme Court’s decision was that broadcasts were “uniquely accessible to children.”

The only reason broadcasts are “pervasive” is because the government, which sets the technical standards for broadcasters and TV sets, has made them so. Cable television, on the other hand, isn’t pervasive. You’ve got to invite it into your house. Want to avoid it? Stop paying for it. Cable, therefore, escapes the Supreme Court’s decency standards, which would leave one to expect the FCC to exclude cable from its regulation of media violence discussion. But no. The report suggests that viewers be given the option of subscribing to an “a la carte” selection of cable TV channels, instead of bundled channels, as a strategy for keeping violent programs out of the home. Presumably, mandated a la carte would put the FCC back in the business of determining cable TV rates. Imagine that, a federal agency keen on increasing its oversight powers!

Before we even think of expanding the FCC’s regulatory powers, we need a better study of the effects of violence on children than this report offers. In its review of the literature, the report concludes, “We agree with the views of the Surgeon General and find that, on balance, research provides strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term.” [Emphasis added.] A clear and present danger, this is not.

Not all media violence is created equal, an obvious observation that David Trend offers in his thorough book The Myth of Media Violence. Is the violence on-screen or off? What type of character committed the violence, and why? What are the consequences of the violence? Is the violence justified? Does it cause pain or suffering? Does the violent character reap his just rewards? Do we sympathize with the victim? Who is the intended audience? Is computer-generated movie violence more abhorrent than violence produced with conventional effects? Is it “burlesque violence” or “retaliatory violence”? Is animal-on-animal violence to be avoided? How about violence on the news? Is mock violence that is inspired by a TV show violence, too? Professional boxing: violence or sport?

Trend notes that every media age brings forth violent entertainments that both repulse and attract. “Victorian-era street theater and penny novels were thought to encourage misbehavior among the working poor, especially young men in urban areas.” Gangster movies in the 1930s were said to increase violence, as were comic books in the 1950s. Rap music and video games, likewise, have been accused of teaching kids to kill, although crime statistics don’t support that assertion.

Anybody who has children—or was once a child—won’t flippantly dismiss the question of whether TV violence is an issue worthy of study and debate. But be wary of people, especially people in government, who would upend adult rights with proposals couched in the language of protecting children. The only way to protect children from every possible injury is to infantilize our world.

Never mind the problem of TV violence for a moment. Please protect me from the solutions.


If government policies make the Internet “pervasive,” should we enlist the FCC to regulate its content, lest children be exposed to ugly and disturbing things? Hit me with your best shot at (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)