OK, let's fast forward to the good part, where parents get help from TV police

February 20, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

PRESIDENT CLINTON has signed sweeping, new telecommunications law that requires manufacturers to include in any new televisions a computer chip that will allow parents automatically to block out programs that have been rated for violence, sex or bad language.

The four major networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, have begun talks and are rushing to establish that rating system before the government does it for them.

And entertainment industry representatives will travel to the White House next week to be scolded by the president for their collective assault on our sensibilities. It would seem that wholesome television is just moments away, and all that is unwholesome soon will be placed beyond the reach of children.

Don't kid yourself.

Half of this flurry of activity is election year pandering and the other half is the powerful television industry positioning itself for the First Amendment legal fight it not only expects, but also probably wants.

Even if that were not the case, the technology for the so-called V-chip is at least two years away and then you will have to buy a new television set to take advantage of it. (Keep in mind that televisions live an average of 11 years. The family pet will require replacement first.)

By the time the V-chip is there for me as a parenting tool, my son may be writing scripts for violent and sexually explicit television shows and my daughter may be acting in them.

The V-chip will likely get here too late for me and for every parent I know.

Let me say that if it weren't for the First Amendment, people like me would be bagging groceries. And I do not plan to turn over the raising of my children to a microchip nanny.

But all this wailing about the censorship of television and this whining about just what responsibility Hollywood has to prop up delinquent parents has successfully denied me a little something that might have helped.

And I don't expect this haggling to end soon. You can be sure our children will be debating the value of the V-chip in helping them protect their own children -- even if none of ours gets pregnant at the age of 15 because of what she saw on "Jenny Jones" after school.

The movie industry fought the rating system, too, but learned to live with it. The manufacturers of records and video games have come more easily into tow, and now have rating systems of their own. You can call your cable company and get MTV blocked and you can call the phone company and get 900 numbers blocked. None of which will ensure that your child will not be savaged by our culture, much less grow up to be a decent and productive member of it. But it helps. And I am not above admitting that I need a little.

Like air bags in automobiles, meaningful technology has been denied an entire generation of parents by a protracted debate. And that debate ended, for all intents and purposes, when President Clinton echoed Sen. Robert Dole during his State of the Union message by calling on Hollywood for restraint and decency in the name of our children.

What was lost in Republican charges that Clinton had pirated their issue was the fact that we are, at least on this subject, all saying the same thing: We want more control over what our children watch on television than our two-job lives will allow.

We are either not home to police the television, or we are too tired to screen it. We need some help. And because the television industry is still blustering and sputtering that it can't imagine rating thousands of hours of programming on dozens of channels -- let alone the constitutional implications of it all -- we won't get that help any time soon.

Robert Keeshan, better known to all of us parents as Captain Kangaroo, works now as a child advocate in the television industry at whose birth he was present as Clarabell on "Howdy Doody."

He has promoted a much more elaborate version of a V-chip, one that would allow parents and children to discuss the times of day, the number of hours and the television shows that are acceptable, and then program a device that will help everyone stick to the new rules.

Something like this addresses the concerns of parents whose kids are in bed by the time "NYPD Blue" is aired, but who don't want their preschoolers watching "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," or who don't want their latch-key kids watching "Geraldo" or who don't want their kids logging 28 hours a week in front of the television set -- but who need some help enforcing these things.

I am one of those parents. I have been saying for the entire life of my children that there is no television after dinner on school nights. That way, no one races through math to get to the remote. But all I have to do is leave the room and the television mysteriously clicks on in front of my blameless children and we then fight about it.

From what I have read about the V-chip, my son the computer hacker would figure out the override commands in about 10 minutes. And no network rating system would label "Saved By the Bell" for blocking, but I am not above wondering what the babes on that show are doing to my son's imagination and my daughter's sense of herself.

It is clear to me that neither technology nor iron-fisted parenting will of its own limit the television watched in my house or its impact.

C7 But together, the chip and I might have had a shot.

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