Censor cable TV? Forgettaboutit

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register on June 4, 2004.
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Like millions of other Americans, I will be glued to my television set on Sunday night watching the season finale of HBO’s critically acclaimed series “The Sopranos” to see who “gets it,” or even just to hear Tony or one of his mobster buddies say “Forgettaboutit!” one last time this season.

But one person who definitely won’t be watching “The Sopranos” finale is my young daughter. The violence, profanity and sexual content is not something I want her exposed to. I’m not sure what the right age is for children to see such programming, but at the point my wife and I think she’s ready, we’ll talk to her about such shows before we sit down to watch them with her. These are tough choices all parents have to make.

There is another alternative, of course. Our government could decide for us which shows are best for our children, or perhaps just determine which hours of the day certain shows could be aired in an attempt to shield our children’s eyes and ears from them. While there are those who would welcome such a move, I would hope that there are still some other parents like me out there who aren’t comfortable with the idea of calling in Uncle Sam to play the role of surrogate parent. Censorship on an individual/​parental level is a fundamental part of being a good parent. But censorship at a governmental level is an entirely different matter because it means a small handful of individuals get to decide what the whole nation is permitted to see, hear or think.

Are lawmakers really serious about censoring cable TV? Regrettably they are. Building on the momentum of the new indecency witch hunt that is driving many talk‐​show hosts off broadcast radio, and has television shows like “E.R.” altering their content to keep censors happy, lawmakers are now putting cable programming in their cross‐​hairs. Discussions have taken place in Congress about “codes of conduct” for cable TV, and even a government‐​approved “family‐​friendly” tier on cable systems. Joe Barton, R‐​Texas, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, which oversees media industry regulation, recently said censorship of pay TV is “an issue whose time is coming. I think we’re approaching the time when whatever we apply to the broadcasters, in some way, voluntarily or involuntarily, is going to be applied to cable.”

Step back for a moment and think about what this means for popular cable programs such as FX’s “The Shield,” Comedy Central’s “South Park” or “The Daily Show,” Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” or any of the admired programs that air on HBO in addition to “The Sopranos” (“Sex and the City,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Six Feet Under” and “Deadwood.”) Are we worse off for having these shows in this world? Some policy‐​makers apparently think so, and have — in the name of “protecting the children” — put the creative community on notice that they no longer have the artistic freedom to make such programs on their own terms. And Americans who have grown to love such shows will be forced to live with sanitized versions. (Would a bleeped, kid‐​friendly “Sopranos” even be worth watching?)

Parents need to stand up and tell the government to stay out of their business and then get down to the serious business of educating their children about the realities of this world, include what we see and hear in media today. Government censorship is never a good solution in a free society. As someone on “The Sopranos” would say, just “forgettaboutit!”

Adam D. Thierer

Adam Thierer is director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute.