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Tuning In to the Great TV Labeling Debate

Commentary: The V-chip may only be a first step, but it's high time to let viewers out of the dark about what programs have in store.

February 19, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Year after year, television folks sanctimoniously assail the false idol of censorship and instead preach the gospel of viewers vetoing programs via the "off" switch. Now--Amen!--the industry's true believers are being forced to put their money where their liturgy is.

The heavy, nail-studded club over them is a provision of the new Telecommunications Reform Act mandating that new TV sets include a V-chip sensitive to electronically coded violence and sex ratings that a preponderance of programs will be required to display.

Activate the chip, block the show.

Labeling much of TV for content is "a truly draconian and frightful step," producer Dick Wolf told a CNBC interviewer last week, sounding like a lawyer hyperbolizing for a jury in "Law & Order," his superb series on NBC.

Most of the industry seems to side with Wolf and is buzzing over how to accommodate the law. But Fox (ironically the raunchiest and goriest of the major networks) has announced that it will unilaterally proceed with labeling along the lines of the ratings system in place for theatrical movies, putting intense pressure on its competitors to get moving on an industrywide standard. If the industry doesn't create its own ratings plan within a year, the Federal Communication Commission can impanel a group to do the job.

Such tagging is in line with the times, as increasingly we're a label-driven society--and thank goodness for it.

Although not always--witness the nasty name calling among Republican presidential hopefuls. And the slanted labels deployed by some reporters, as in John North of KABC-TV Channel 7 repeatedly calling Brian "Kato" Kaelin "the world's most infamous house guest and freeloader."

Love Kaelin or leave him, "freeloader" has a spin. As does "liberal media," a favorite of political conservatives that erroneously implies the press is a monolith. As does "progressive," the latest self-anointing of liberals that suggests conservatives are regressive. As does "politically correct," a facile, cynical assumption that trendiness, not moral or ethical grounds, underlies positions on social issues. And as do "racist" and "anti-Semite," brands too broadly hot-ironed on anyone with whom you may conflict on ethnic issues.


Yet sometimes labels are unwisely omitted. The Times, for example, was a rare news organization that noted the "liberal" leanings of the Washington research group that last week tied Larry Pratt, a co-chairman of GOP candidate Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign, to meetings of militant hate groups. That didn't mean the story should be dismissed, only that, given liberals' general contempt for Buchanan, the political agenda of the source was at least noteworthy.

Speaking as both a vegetarian and zealous fat-watcher, in fact, where would some of us be without labels, especially those government-imposed listings of "nutrition facts" and ingredients that increasingly guide food shoppers? Is it any less reasonable to inform viewers--especially parents of young children--how many grams of sex and violence are in TV programs?

TV is already too rutted in timidity. Opponents such as Wolf argue that a ratings system will result in even blander fare, with networks reluctant to risk losing advertisers who would be frightened off by programs stamped for violence and sex.

In other words, an advertiser now buying time on, say, ABC's hit "NYPD Blue," arguably conventional TV's most violent and sexually explicit series, would flee because those content levels would be formally acknowledged? Or would they bow out because some viewers would bow out?

In either case, this is an argument against truth, suggesting that as long as viewers are ignorant of what's coming, advertisers will be happy and everything will be rosy.

Opponents also throw down the 1st Amendment card, absurdly claiming that the V-chip and its companion ratings system would curb freedom of speech. Giving viewers more data would be an act of censorship? Against whom, the networks? How so, when their beloved marketplace would hold the power? What kind of reverse logic is this? Since when is not watching an act of censorship?

Or is it children who will be censored? Possibly, yet isn't censorship a parent's right and responsibility? And doesn't it follow that helping parents make better-informed decisions about the TV their kids watch ensures a more enlightened society, not a dumber one?

The same industry that for millennia has accused parents who complain about TV of passing the buck--and has urged them to assume greater responsibility for what their children watch--would now withhold a critical tool to enable them to become the self-censors they've been told they should be? What rot! What hypocrisy!

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