Whither the V-Chip?
Jeff Jarvis has been getting his knickers in a knot the last couple of weeks over the continued annoyance that is the Federal Communications Commission, and I’m starting agree with him. His latest missive highlights how the threat of FCC fines for indecency has caused television stations to decide not to run “Saving Private Ryan“. I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me most about this continuing saga until last night, just as I was going to sleep, it hit me: what happened to the V-Chip?
Oh, you don’t remember the V-Chip? Allow me to refresh your memory…
In 1995, I was an Engineering Science student at Simon Fraser University. One of my lab professors at the time, Tim Collings, had been tinkering on a system for blocking TV content based on a ratings signal embedded in a cable TV transmission. Central to Tim’s motivation was the desire to protect his children from indecent content.
It was neat technology, but ultimately I didn’t think it would ever take off. I mean, really, who would need a device to block television? Hadn’t they heard of the off switch and parental supervision? Besides, the infrastructure changes to provide the requisite rating signal would be immense! Nothing short of a Presidential declaration would force cable companies to make those kinds of changes.
And then in January of 1996, my housemates and I watched President Clinton’s State of the Union Address in disbelief as he made the following impassioned plea to Congress:
To the media, I say you should create movies and CDs and television shows you’d want your own children and grandchildren to enjoy. (Applause.)
I call on Congress to pass the requirement for a V chip in TV sets so that parents can screen out programs they believe are inappropriate for their children. (Applause.) When parents control what their young children see, that is not censorship; that is enabling parents to assume more personal responsibility for their children’s upbringing. And I urge them to do it. The V chip requirement is part of the important telecommunications bill now pending in this Congress. It has bipartisan support, and I urge you to pass it now. (Applause.)
To make the V chip work, I challenge the broadcast industry to do what movies have done — to identify your program in ways that help parents to protect their children. And I invite the leaders of major media corporations in the entertainment industry to come to the White House next month to work with us in a positive way on concrete ways to improve what our children see on television. I am ready to work with you. (Applause.)
Today, every new TV over 33″ contains a V-Chip. Problem solved, right? Children safe? Decency restored? And I can go back to disabling it so I can watch whatever the hell I want, when I want, unbridled by the attempts of government to tell me what I can and can’t watch, right?
The battle to save the tender eyes and ears of children should have ended with the V-Chip, but it didn’t. No, now even the adults have to be protected from offense. I mean, what goes through these people’s minds?
Television Announcer: Tonight, Saving Private Ryan, a gripping wartime drama movie blah blah blah, blah blah death blah harsh reality of war.
Viewer’s Brain: Hmm. War movie? I don’t know what that means. I know I’m in the mood for fluffy bunnies and mild moral-sounding platitudes dished out by anorexic pop stars. But I can’t quite figure out if this show will fit the bill…hmm, oh well, I guess I’ll just keep watching!
Five minutes later, a boatload of GIs get brutally massacred in the time between leaving their boat and hitting the sand.
Viewer (aloud): My God! This is violent! Well, that simply won’t do! I guess I’ll have to write an outraged letter to the FCC! After all, it’s not like I have the power to switch the channel or anything…
The way things are going, CSPAN’s going to end up getting itself fined! Especially if Cheney speaks his mind towards his opponents again and it’s caught on tape this time.
While I may agree that parents controlling what their children see is not censorship, having the FCC restrict what I see certainly qualifies as censorship. It’s only made more annoying by the fact that the FCC’s efforts to regulate what we see and hear are ill-conceived at best and downright idiotic at worst. Who in their right mind believes that the word “God” on TV is OK, and the word “damn” on TV is OK, but if you put the two together then you’ve gone outside the bounds of decency? Or that 10pm marks a time at which everyone magically becomes incrementally more tolerant of “indecent” material? I don’t know about you, but half the time I’d rather be in bed asleep by 10pm.
The sheer insanity of the FCC system of regulation was never more apparent to me than when I saw an episode of the Graham Norton Effect a couple months ago. In the show, Graham Norton had solicited male members of the audience to make candles. From their genitals. I am not creative enough to be making this up. Janet Jackson’s boob? Indecent! Guys’ schlongs rendered in wax and placed atop a birthday cake? Decent!
The continued interference of the FCC in the viewing decisions of the American people only underlines the failure of the V-Chip. And therein lies the lesson: the V-Chip failed because it was incapable of reflecting the diverse tastes of viewers and their individual interpretations of what constitutes “decent” or “indecent” material. Just like the FCC. But there is an upside – as the FCC continues to meddle, content producers will move to unregulated channels of distribution and consumers, driven by frustration at the FCC’s lack of respect for their right to choose to be offended, will follow them.
It’s only a matter of time before the FCC is relegated to the dustbin of history.