Parents continue to struggle nightly with the torrent of trash on the TV screen, and the executives at the top of the trash heap have come to Washington and tried to suggest they have found the magic pill that cures it all. It is the V-chip, they proclaim, mandated in every new television set to aid the parent in blocking out programming that's too sexual, too violent or too crude in its language.
ABC President Alex Wallau told Congress that "ABC believes strongly that we have a responsibility to enable our viewers to make informed choices about the programs they watch and those their children watch. The V-chip can play a critical role in these choices."
The V-chip is touted by Hollywood as such a panacea that NBC has told the FCC it has no need to enforce anti-indecency regulations anymore, given that viewers have the option of using the V-chip to block channels they don't want coming into their homes. Who needs Washington to get involved when you have this trusty gadget, the Ronco Raunch Remover at your fingertips to handle those pesky shows?
If it sounds too simple and obvious -- it is. The argument sinks faster than the Titanic when subjected to scrutiny. For starters, most parents have no idea how this V-chip works or know that their TV set even contains one. A survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that only 15 percent of parents they surveyed have used the V-chip. Many of the survey's respondents (39 percent) didn't realize that their new TV sets were equipped with a V-chip, while others (20 percent) knew they had a V-chip but haven't used it.
More important, however, is what the industry knows but isn't saying: The V-chip is worthless. Even if parents know how to use it, for the V-chip to be effective in blocking programming, it needs to identify the content descriptors listed at the beginning of the program -- such as "V" for violence, "L" for harsh language, "S" for sexual material and "D" for sexual dialogue.
NBC and NBC-owned cable channels have never put these warning letters on their screen so that parents could block a thing. Thus, NBC's present position -- who needs decency standards when we have the V-chip? -- is beyond ironic. It deserves some sort of prize for intellectual dishonesty. Just how disingenuous is NBC? The Peacock Network airs a brief public-service announcement starring actress Mariska Hargitay ("Law and Order: Special Victims Unit") urging parents: "If you're blushing, maybe they shouldn't be watching. Keep an eye on what your kids watch on TV." They don't say: especially since NBC has no intention of blocking offensive programs.
Like the other networks, NBC does flash movie-theater-style letters for the overall level of the content -- most often TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA for "mature audiences." By and large this is meaningless, especially when it's the producers themselves giving these ratings. And while the other networks offer parents the additional content descriptors (S, V, L or D), they're having a field day not applying them accurately to their programming.
Remember the president of ABC telling Congress they were all about "enabling their viewers to make informed choices"? A new study by the Parents Television Council, studying 638 programs and their ratings put on screen during the big "sweeps" periods in recent years, found that in the 85 shows that ABC rated PG, 52 percent of them were missing the proper content warnings. More than half the shows were wrongly evaluated. An incredible 92 percent of the shows containing sexual behavior carried no "S"; 75 percent of shows with violence contained no "V"; 60 percent of shows with racy dialogue aired no "D"; and 40 percent of the shows with curse words had no "L." So much for informed choices at ABC.
What many parents don't know is that unlike the movie system, there is no independent ratings board for television. The Kaiser Foundation folks found a majority of parents had no idea that the TV barons label themselves. The networks have a clear financial conflict of interest with an objective ratings system. If the network gives a program a tougher warning, it could scare off advertisers, lowering the network's profits. So the networks are financially motivated to underrate (or refuse to rate) their programs.
Parents are left in the lurch. There is no inter-network consistency in the ratings. There isn't even ratings consistency within each network. The TV ratings system is a perpetually broken promise, like a lemon car offered to the buyer as a souped-up sports coupe. The buyer must be wary of not just the TV product but also the broadcast TV pitchmen who pose as caring guardians of parental interests. That pose is as fictional as most of the shows these broadcasters air.