Commentary

Next Stop: The Crib

Imagine blander TV. Go ahead, try. Imagine something more vapid than a prime-time sitcom full of well-groomed idlers in a saccharine circular plot, in which the one unpardonable sin is character development.

What you’re imagining is the future of TV, courtesy of the Telecom bill Congress just passed. Call it V-chip TV.

The V-chip will be required by law in all televisions sold in America. If you activate the V-chip (by a procedure presumably too occult for videogame-savvy children to crack), your TV will respond to classifications that broadcasters will attach electronically to programs. Programs will probably be classified by their content of make-believe sex, salty language, and theatrical “blood.” If the label on a program says, for example, “SIMULATED VIOLENCE — DEGREE 8,” and you have set your V-chip not to accept faked horseplay rougher than 5, your television will refuse to show the program. The goal is to automate parental guidance. The standards for the rating system will be national, set by broadcast and cable networks and approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, sixty-six percent of households in America don’t have kids under 18, but we’ll all have — and pay for — V-chips. It may waste a great deal of our money, but that’s of no concern to our representatives in Congress. They want to make us nicer people. Underlying context will, of course, not matter in the ratings. In “protected” homes, Oprah will appear daily while Verdi will be V-ed out. “Schindler’s List” will make it to fewer history-loving households than “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” since “Schindler” contains not only murder but nudity. Bureaucrats at the FCC and businessmen at networks will create ideal standards that apply to all children. A prudent parent would be skeptical. But, then, let’s be frank. This mechanical guardian isn’t really intended for prudent parents.

No, Congress envisions that somehow the V-chip will solve the problems of bad families where kids are neglected. That seems a bit naive, even by Washington’s standards. Will installing a V-chip make a crack-smoking mother reform, or a child-beating father come to his senses? Will it teach kids to read, or stop gangs from intimidating them? Will the V-chip get much use in households where there is no order, food, or love?

Congress should face the facts. Street kids get their violent impulses from life, not entertainment. The V-chip puts millions of dollars into electronics and legislation for regulating fiction — a poor substitute for grappling with reality.

The V-chip will, however, make television worse for the rest of us.

TV is an industry governed by fear. If broadcast executives believe that a show with a high V-number will get lower ratings (since theoretically it will be unavailable in some households), they will start to program V-chip standards. Can you imagine what writers will offer us when they’re trying to second-guess executives who are second-guessing what the FCC second-guesses will be alarming to tiny tots and bluestockinged parents?

The next Shakespeare will probably not choose TV as his medium. Shakespeare worked in poetry, blood, and fire, none of which are apt to fare well on the kindergarten scale of the V-chip.

Aside from sports and news (whose factual violence apparently troubles no one — only art and imagination bother Congress) mass-broadcast TV will be very tame. You won’t be likely to see “National Geographic” on a network, even if you disable your V-chip. The ratings game will ensure that chipworthy shows will just not be on.

Now, maybe you say, “Good. TV’s a big time waster anyway. This will inspire people to turn to other media. The wonderful Internet offers challenging new worlds to explore.”

Surprise. The Telecom bill has “improved” that too. The Internet is now subject to the unconstitutional Exon-inspired “decency” restrictions — assigning criminal penalties for language and expression, lest a child somewhere in the country log on and read a naughty word.

So even the Internet is on the way to the toddler aesthetic.

Congress has made a grievous error in adopting these aspects of the Telecom bill. At the very moment that electronic media have opened the world to us, our leaders are marching us back into the nursery and locking the door.

Teller is an H. L. Mencken research fellow with the Cato Institute and the shorter, quieter half of Penn & Teller.