State educators want TVs sold with blocking devices Law would give parents in Maryland more control over time that kids watch

July 03, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Worried that children watch too much television, state education officials are pushing a law requiring new TVs sold in Maryland to have a device letting parents block certain channels and limit the time their children spend in front of the tube.

The idea is the brainchild of State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state Board of Education. The concept has the unanimous backing of the board. Draft legislation could go to the board for formal approval as early as this month, said Mr. Embry.

The superintendent plans to ask Gov. William Donald Schaefer to include the proposal in his 1994 legislative package, or to introduce it as an Education Department initiative. The department's proposals are due to the governor's office by mid-August.

As of yesterday, the governor had not been briefed on the draft legislation and had no position on it, said Page Boinest, Mr. Schaefer's press secretary.

She added, however, that Mr. Schaefer "is concerned about impressions that, especially, young children can get from violent television shows or movies."

But television manufacturers ridiculed the idea.

"This is inane, it's foolish and it doesn't speak well for the Department of Education, if it's a serious proposal," said Gary Shapiro, a vice president at the Electronic Industries Association, which represents television makers. "There is something called the 'On/Off' switch that works well in my house. . . . This is social engineering of the worst kind."

Dr. Grasmick's proposal comes as Congress and the television industry struggle with the issue of violence on television, which many believe is causing behavioral problems for children.

"We know we have more working parents, more children where they have an electronic baby sitter," said Dr. Grasmick. She estimated that each child watches an average of 28 hours of television each week.

Specially-equipped television sets would give parents greater control over what their children see, said Dr. Grasmick, who also serves as the governor's Special Secretary for Children, Youth and Families.

"It's not the state telling parents what's appropriate or inappropriate, it's the parents themselves," she said.

Technology exists

Maryland officials say the technology already exists to equip televisions with the capability of restricting children's viewing, either through hardware built into the set or as an accessory.

Mr. Embry said that he was convinced that television violence "is a very negative force in American life," and that many parents "have no real way of controlling the use of TV. . . . Every parent I know, that I've talked to about this, has said, 'Gosh, that would be wonderful.' "

Jack Luskin, chairman of Maryland-based Luskin's consumer electronics chain, labeled the legislation well-intentioned but impractical.

"Politically, it's not going to happen," said Mr. Luskin, who said manufacturers are unlikely to make televisions specially for the Maryland market. "The idea is good, but the mechanics of making it happen are mind-boggling."

Even if such legislation were to pass, "the kids will find a way to beat the system," he warned. "Bet on it."

And Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association, warned that such a law could hurt Maryland retailers by raising the cost of their products and driving buyers across state lines.

But the proposal won warm support from the head of a local group advocating reforms in children's television.

"It gives increased control to a parent around a household appliance that is a very powerful influence in children's lives," said Charlene Hughins Uhl, coordinator of the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV.

Her group, a project of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth, is funded in part by the Abell Foundation, of which Mr. Embry is president.

A more complex view comes from Nora MacLaughlin, a Howard County parent who said she paid $105 for a time-lock device to restrict her 11-year-old son's television viewing.

"It's wonderful in helping my son in decision-making, and I don't have to fuss at him," said Mrs. MacLaughlin, whose son is allowed 10 hours of unrestricted viewing each week on one of the family's two televisions.

But she opposes the idea of requiring such devices.

"Every time they start legislating something, they screw it up," she said. "I wouldn't want to pay for it on all the TVs in our house."

National debate

Nationally, the issue of television programming content has been the subject of intense debate, with members of Congress pressing the industry to restrict violent offerings.

zTC Just this week, the four major television networks, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, announced a voluntary plan for parental advisories on violent programs, a measure derided as weak by some critics of the industry.

The draft Maryland legislation presented to the state board this week would allow either built-in devices or external units, so long as they give the parent or guardian control over the television's hours and channels.

At least three companies around the country make time-lock devices, which can be connected to a television, letting parents restrict the times and number of hours a television can be in operation. They do not block out particular channels or types of programming, however.

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