Sunday, May 13, 2007

Violence on television has been increasing at an alarming rate. On any given evening on network or cable there are countless murders, beatings and torture scenes in almost every dramatic show. Many people, and especially parents of small children, are fed up with this situation and for several years there has been talk of limiting the violence and the so-called “adult” language on television by federal law. Considering this possibility in 2004, the 109th Congress requested a study of the effects of violent television programming on children from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The report is now complete and the findings are not pretty.

In results similar to those already determined by the Surgeon General’s office, the American Medical Association, the Kaiser Family Foundation and several other sponsors of previous studies on the topic, the FCC found that television violence is pervasive and nearly unavoidable. This is the case late in the evening and also during the formerly “Family Friendly Hours” of 7-9 PM. The report concludes that television violence is “linked” to aggressive behavior in children and that it desensitizes them to fighting and makes them more fearful as well.

Part of the problem is that we have become a nation of television addicts and we are passing the addiction on to our children. One study by Nielsen Media, the company that invented the original television ratings system, determined that a television is on in the American home an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes every day.

As the father of five grown children and a longtime veteran of the culture wars, I was astonished at that figure. Have things gotten so far out of whack in the American family? I realize we no longer live in the era of “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” Many mothers have to work or want to work outside the home and more and more children have no fathers to speak of. Every day I see additional evidence that the traditional family unit of one mother and one father who are actually married to each other and live with their own children ought to be put on the endangered species list along with the spotted owl and the kangaroo rat. However, I did not realize that the television set had become the equivalent of a parent. For it to be on that long suggests that there are many households in which it has taken the place of playing with children, reading to them, eating or even talking to them.

It is not surprising that the great majority of U.S. households pay for some form of television services via cable or satellite. Somewhere between 70 percent and 85 percent of American households, depending on which study you read, pay for cable or satellite television. “Basic” cable, as it is called in most regions of the country, or “premium” cable or a satellite dish are in the majority of our homes for a variety of reasons. Many consumers really want to choose from 80 or more channels; others would be happy with 10 or fewer. The average home watches only 17 of the channels it receives in a premium cable package, and in certain areas of the country paying for cable is the only way to get any television reception at all. (This is especially true in large cities where the density of the population and the number of tall buildings makes it nearly impossible for the analog signal to get to a television set.)

For the last decade the cable industry has been promoting the V-chip, which allows parents to block objectionable programming when the television is on. The V-chip sounds like a good idea but it is yet another example of the consumer paying more money for less service and then doing most of the work. First, the consumer must make sure the television set was made after 2000; older sets do not have the V-chip capability. The adult must then learn how to program the V-system and hope that the children don’t figure out how to override their parent’s password. As there frequently is more than one TV in the average house, each TV must be programmed for the V-chip to work.

Then there are the so-called V-chip ratings, which are based on age groups. The guidelines include letters such as “L” for language and “D” for dialogue and “V” for violence, but these guidelines are confusing, open to interpretation and done by the television programmers themselves. That’s right; the shows are rated by the people who want you to watch them.

Wouldn’t it be simpler if Americans could simply pick the stations we want and not take the channels we do not? Unfortunately, the cable industry has made this impossible. Consumers must pay for premium rather than basic cable simply to get one or two channels they want such as Fox News or American Movie Classics. They pay between $50 and $80 per month and take an entire “bundle” of channels when they only watch one or two. The cable companies have insisted for many years that “unbundling” the channels is impractical if not impossible, even though it works quite well in other countries, such as Canada.

Before advocating that the government or the FCC step in and regulate, we must first fulfill our responsibilities as parents. Turn off the television set (or sets). That should be obvious to every parent of every religion or philosophical belief. No child should be watching two to four hours of television every night.

As for the cable companies, I have little sympathy. They have greatly contributed to lowering the standards of decency in television programming and have increased their rates an average of 90 percent over the last 10 years. If they want to forestall regulation, they need to offer a la carte programming. Let the market work and “debundle.” Let parents chose which channels their children should see and pay only for those channels. We may not be able to bring back the days of June and Ward Cleaver, but we should be able to keep violent and disgusting television programs out of our own homes.

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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