The road from the V-chip to Big Brother is a short one. Today the government puts a chip in your TV set, tomorrow it puts one in your head. At least that's how critics see it, the censor-chip as part of a kind of cultural domino theory. The V-chip, henceforth required in new TV sets under the recently enacted telecommunications law, will work along with a new voluntary ratings system to give parents the ability to lock out undesired programming. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales claimed that supporters of the chip "will be relying on the great god of technology to deliver them from the great satan of technology."
Despite such apocalyptic warnings, there's a growing sense that altogether too much sludge is pouring into our dens and living rooms through the tube, and a emerging consensus that something ought to be done about it. Some think that merely rating the sludge is not enough.
"The television industry owes America's families more than good warnings on bad programming," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, one of a group of religious and political leaders who called on Hollywood to "go beyond the V-chip" and clean up network TV programs. "If you put a rating on garbage, it doesn't thereby become high-quality programming," Lieberman said.
Sleazy TV isn't about to disappear anytime soon. Even some of the best-written shows include, as a matter of course, language and behavior that many find objectionable. What episode of Seinfeld doesn't include (usually off-screen) casual sex involving Jerry, Elaine, George, or even Kramer(!)? Not to mention tabloid made-for-TV movies, daytime soaps and trash-talk shows, and the rash of Current Affairs spinoffs.
In a recent column, George Will described watching the popular sitcom Friends with his 14-year-old daughter. The show has included gags about premature ejaculation, male organ size, threesomes, and sex in public. Will's daughter called such fare "uncalled for."
THE PROBLEM ISN'T just the smutty sex. What's worse are the assumptions that undergird it. Two people meet, they go out, they sleep together. No commitment required. No moral judgment involved. Sex is portrayed as simply a physical act, satisfying an urge. Fidelity? Covenant? Not often part of the equation. Nor usually are real-world consequences, such as unintended pregnancy, venereal disease, or AIDS.
The same is true regarding violence. It isn't just the prevalence (57 percent of all TV programming contains acts of violence). What's more problematic is the fact that in more than 70 percent of TV violence, there are no adverse consequences to the perpetuators.
One doesn't have to believe that there's a 1-to-1 connection between screen brutality and real-world mayhem to be concerned about such figures. Obviously, not everyone who watches a murder on TV goes out and kills someone. But the soul-numbing repetition of violent acts-one study estimated that the average child views 13,000 televised acts of violence by age 14-takes its toll, especially on children in the vulnerable stages of moral formation, but on adults as well. Our spirits are affected, as much as we might delude ourselves that we're immune. Garbage in, garbage out.
The V-chip and TV ratings, of course, won't change all that. Some claim they could even make things worse by providing the networks an excuse to put even more vulgar material on the air. And one cable-industry-funded researcher found that "Parental Discretion Advised" and "R-rated" warning labels served as a "magnet," not a deterrent, for kids making decisions without their parents' supervision, especially among boys. No surprise there.
We can't expect the solution to the problem of trashy mass entertainment to come from its creators. The only adequate response, in the final analysis, is good parenting. It starts by acknowledging that some things-sexuality (especially promiscuity), graphic violence, and other "adult" themes-are not suitable fare for children, and can even have a deeply scarring effect. Parents must use careful discernment in choosing what our children take in.
But such involvement takes time, a commodity in short supply for most of us these days. We can't preview everything that our children watch. We learn to trust certain shows and even certain channels. While the V-chip and ratings system are certainly no cure-all, they may well be helpful tools for parents seeking to exercise our responsibility for moral education.
But along with screening, the most vital thing parents can do is to help our children develop the critical thinking-and critical watching-skills that will give them the tools to do their own moral discernment. That requires watching with our children and discussing what's right and what's wrong with what they're seeing (including the commercials!).
Finally, we shouldn't underestimate the power of example. If we watch lots of TV, our kids will want to watch TV, too. Maybe the best way to block offensive material from entering our home is to turn off the box and pick up a good book. That's a voluntary system we can all get behind.