Taming the television beast

July 24, 1995|By Maggie Gallagher

WHEN I FIRST heard about the V-chip, I felt like shouting "Hallelujah!" It seemed like the answer to every parent's prayers.

The V-chip, or choice chip as it is sometimes called, requires broadcasters to set up ratings for television shows (much like movies), and allows families to block programming they don't want in their homes.

At last! An end to all those repetitive arguments that preteens have so much more energy for than parents ("No, you may not watch 'Melrose Place' tonight, either"). And what a solace, too, for moms who worry about what Johnny is watching while they have to work.

It seems like such an obviously good idea that I tried hard, really hard, to find an intelligent argument against it, even calling libertarian and technophile think tanks like the Progress and Freedom Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Everywhere I got the same message: "I'm not sure we have anyone working on that. We'll call you." Which they never did.

One of the few vocal opponents is Sen. Bob Dole, who made the surprising assertion that shame is more effective than laws in stopping media filth. (His speech sure has put a stop to Hollywood violence, hasn't it?)

Besides, he says, invoking the by-now standard civil libertarian mantra: Regulating TV viewing is a parents' responsibility.

Ooh, it makes my blood boil. This is one parent who is sick and tired of being lectured to by talking heads on the subject. Do people who say things like that have any idea what it's like to raise kids today? Oh yeah, sure, strew filth in the streets, bombard the airwaves with murder, mayhem, lewdness and vulgarity, and then expect parents to single-handedly persuade their kids that community standards of behavior do exist and are worth abiding by.

Such sentiments are why parents today feel increasingly isolated, why making a family is a project to which the culture seems fundamentally hostile. For all practical purposes, these people treat raising kids as a countercultural activity, to be carried out in the privacy of one's own home, without inconveniencing anyone else.

You wanna have kids? they tell us, why don't you turn off the channel, throw away the TV set, stay off the Internet. Come to think of it, why don't you go lock yourself and your nasty little kids up in a monastery so we grown-ups can engage in our "adult" activities without having to worry about any little pitchers and their bothersome big ears.

The V-chip is the first serious effort to tame the television monster, giving parents the tools to say no, once and for all, to violent programming.

I say, hurrah, but is it enough?

The problem with television, from the standpoint of families, is not just inappropriate adult programming. It's the vile, vulgar and devilishly effective advertising aimed at children.

Someday, some clever social scientist should nail down just how much more expensive it is to raise children and more difficult to maintain household peace when skilled marketers regularly urge kids to crave more and more video games, action heroes, properly endorsed sneakers and high-tech squirt guns.

In a new book, "Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment," Newton Minow, author of the famous speech in 1961 pronouncing television "a vast wasteland," proposes a simple, elegant solution: Ban TV ads aimed at pre-schoolers.

It's an idea worth considering. Our current truth-in-advertising laws aim only at protecting the "reasonable man." But fooling an unreasonable 4-year-old is a much easier proposition. Television ads aim to manipulate people too immature to vote, sign contracts or distinguish reality from imagination. Some may raise First Amendment objections, but where in the Constitution does it say Madison Avenue has a right to sell products to people too young to tie their own shoelaces?

I think we can safely take it as a rule of thumb: Anyone who still believes in Santa Claus requires protection from over-eager electronic salesmen.

Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist.

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