Broadcast networks finally get a ‘decent’ ally

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The ugly word “censorship” conjures up images of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” a frightening look at a supposed Utopian society in which the government has banned all forms of entertainment.

But ever since Janet Jackson’s now infamous 2004 Super Bowl Sunday “wardrobe malfunction,” lawmakers have increased efforts to curtail indecency on television’s airwaves, and it’s all starting to reek of censorship.

Though few fines have actually been imposed on broadcast TV networks apart from those levied as a result of the Jackson incident, the very threat of a fine often causes the networks to impose their own form of self-censorship.

In order to fight back against these government efforts to “control” the airwaves, a network TV-backed group called TV Watch has been launched to offer up alternative resolutions. TV Watch’s mission is “to educate consumers and federal regulators about the V-chip technology and other existing controls consumers can use to block objectionable programming.”

The group has the financial backing of News Corp., NBC Universal and Viacom — all of the owners of the “Big 4” TV networks except Disney. The group is also supported by other organizations, such as the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for Creative Voices in Media, the Creative Coalition, the Media Freedom Project, the Media Institute, SpeakSpeak, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Perhaps it is about time someone stood up for the networks, as these multi-million dollar corporations need an ally.

TV Watch hired two groups, Luntz Research and Peter D. Hart Associates, to conduct a survey to prove that they speak for a majority of Americans. The survey revealed that 92 percent of adults believe that while they may not always like what is on their TV screens, they would “rather make that decision … than have the government make the decision” for them.

But the Parents Television Council, one of the leading groups trying to fight indecency on television, publicized a Pew Research Center survey with results that refute this exact thinking. According to its March 2005 survey, 75 percent of people favor tighter enforcement of government regulation on television content during hours when children are most likely to be watching. Furthermore, most people (69 percent) agree that steeper fines might be a good solution, and a majority (60 percent) also believe that broadcast standards of decency should be extended to cable television.

Perhaps the public doesn’t know what they want, and therefore needs groups from both sides of the spectrum, such as TV Watch and the Parents Television Council, to think for them. Indeed, TV Watch fills a void in this ongoing battle.

One point that both of these surveys seemed to make was that parents should be primarily responsible for what their children watch, with 86 percent of respondents saying this in the Luntz survey, and 79 percent saying this in the Pew survey.

Of course, parents should not use their television sets as plug-in babysitters for their latchkey kids. Unfortunately, the Pew survey also showed that only about one-third of parents said they always know what their children are watching. And while this is up from 18 percent in 1997, the number is still alarmingly low. Parents leave their children to watch TV without any supervision, without stopping to talk to them about the mature themes of some programming. Sometimes, allowing children to watch such programming isn’t necessarily irresponsible, as long as parents talk it out with their kids after-the-fact.

So, until parenting requires a license — not likely to happen — children will continue to watch TV that’s not meant for their young eyes. And some of these same children will grow up thinking that the things they see on the TV — rape, violence, drugs — are acceptable in society. It is then that indecency becomes not just a problem for parents, but a problem for everybody.

Because of this, some broadcast TV regulation, especially during hours when children are likely to be watching, should exist. But there is a fine line between promoting decent programming and promoting censorship. These restrictions could be lighter during the evening hours to allow for more creative freedom. And cable television, as well as DVDs, could help satisfy people’s need to see sex and violence on the small screen.

TV Watch advocates V-chip technology to limit children’s exposure to such indecency. Unfortunately, the V-chip relies on TV ratings that have sometimes proven inadequate. The Parents Television Council studied the ratings and found that many of the networks’ PG-rated shows during quarterly sweeps periods contained foul language, violence, and sexual dialogue and behavior without the appropriate disclaimers.

Perhaps there exists some happy compromise between groups like TV Watch and the Parents Television Council. There must be some middle ground between dropping all regulation to basically allow pornography on broadcast television, and regulating the airwaves to the point of censorship.

James Zvonec is a graduate student studying mass communication.