NCAC Censorship News Issue #66:

Summer 1997

As the controversy over the new tv ratings system heats up, so does the question of whether government initiated ratings comprise censorship and if the Federal Communications Commission can limit free speech.

Dissatisfied with the “voluntary” ratings system developed by the television and entertainment industries, Congress initiated proposals to impose a government-sanctioned rating system on television programming. The new industry rating system has been the subject of FCC hearings since April. The FCC hearings are for the purpose of determining whether the system is acceptable or whether the Commission should develop its own guidelines for use with the V-chip. Many groups concerned with freedom of expression have asked the FCC to reject demands for a government rating system which they describe as “government-coerced censorship.” Written comments can be sent to The Federal Trade Commission at 1919 M Street NW, Washington D.C. 20554 or e-mailed to [email protected] until July 7th.


The following article by Thomas Oliphant entitled A Rush to Rate Television Shows, reprinted from the May 20th issue of The Boston Globe, details more of the controversy.

It’s not about a family hour on TV. By the time the latest skirmish in the culture wars is over, it will be the government hour. What began a few years ago as an essentially helpful public debate about the content of television programming has taken the ugliest turn of all–political and bureaucratic.

A Senate committee approved a bill this month to permit the regulation of content, with the focus on violence. And the bill was approved in a 19-1 vote with the encouragement of the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, virtually guaranteeing further attempted regulation when the measure hits the floor. Once that happens, you can bet that some pol will add that other American staple, sex, to the governmental mix.

In this yarn, nearly everyone plays the heavy, including folks on the right who look at television as message-sending propaganda, folks on the left who see educational and artistic potential, and politicians who may not know TV but who know can’t-miss issues when they see them.

The only good guys are the rare conservatives who remain true to their beliefs that government has no business supervising the television industry in loco parentis–in this case freshman Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.

The offending statute was authored by Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, a Democrat. Its twin in the House is sponsored by V-chip pioneer Ed Markey, a Democrat, and, from the right, Republican Dan Burton of Indiana. All have managed to make an initial proposal of last year even worse.

The context for the Hollings proposal is a classic shouting match involving interest groups and activist groups over the merits and demerits of the ratings system that the industry has only just begun using. It has a cousin, moreover, in proceedings by the airwaves police at the Federal Communications Commission under chairman Reed Hundt, an Al Gore pal. The effort is to consider whether the industry’s age-based ratings system is “acceptable” and to devise a new one if it is not.

What the activists on the left and right both want is a ratings system based on the content of programming to replace the six categories currently used to suggest the age groups for which a specific program is thought appropriate. Instead of numbers referring to audience, they want letters referring to content.

What the Hollings proposal does is require one of two things. The first is what the activist groups and politicians most desire: that the networks and most cable channels provide so-called content-based ratings on the level of violence in every program.

The alternative would empower the FCC to restrict “violent” programming to the late evening and beyond, presumably after most children are asleep.

Clearly, the intent is to use the regulatory club to force the broadcasters to rate by content, which they and a few hardy civil libertarians correctly recognize as an effort to censor selectively via labels.

For starters, none of this mania about values is meant to affect football, pro wrestling, and other cultural pillars. Similarly, there would be no impact on the soft-core pornography of daytime soap operas, much less the “public affairs” concept that puts talk show freaks on the air.

Violence is not defined by Hollings, of course. Presumably, our government will be able to distinguish between Rupert Murdoch and Schindler’s List in handing out its V ratings, though the industry’s cry of constitutional foul would carry more weight if there were more Schindler and less Murdoch in the first place.

Fortunately, there remain a few cooler heads in this classic mixture of good and ugly impulses. President Clinton has urged a pause until the industry has a chance to evaluate and improve its new system this summer.

And there is much less support for legislation in the House. Instead of moving a bill along, a subcommittee this week is holding a hearing (in Peoria, no less) to provide a forum for views on the ratings. Still, the 19-1 Senate committee vote is the kind of action that can make a slope very slippery, very fast.

In time, the V-chip will be required TV technology, empowering every family to block what it chooses from kids’ eyes. That, however, has only intensified an argument over how to program that chip, and with what kinds of abbreviations. In the meantime, if a parent is truly concerned, he or she can consult TV magazines, the newspaper, all manner of private ratings services, and the new industry system, which is certain to be improved. It is also legal to talk to your children, watch TV with them, and use the remote’s off button.

What is happening now is a dangerous slide from activism in the marketplace of ideas to the use of government to regulate the culture, whether through intimidation or direct regulation. The fact that left and right are together on this is not a sign of bipartisan unity but a symptom of national laziness.