A Chip Off the Same Old Block : Television: Will electronic technology that could black out violent programs really have any impact on real-life violence?


It would be nice if television sets were equipped with electronic chips that automatically rejected everything and everyone found to be annoying: most infomercials, certain newscasts, Dick Vitale, Rush Limbaugh, Richard Simmons, Mr. Blackwell, Tom and Roseanne getting high on themselves. Pick your peeve.

But much of the public appears interested only in vetoing violence.

Thus it’s the “V” chip that’s on the slab here for dissection--proposed technology that would repel entertainment programs labeled violent.

In a feeble move to buy time and placate critics, broadcast and cable-TV companies this week said they would form an independent monitoring board to measure and periodically report on violence in entertainment programming.


Even with “independent” observers in the mix, these annual state of the industry messages would have a serious credibility problem. “Trust us to do the right thing,” the TV people seem to be saying. That would be naive, to say the least. The trustworthiness of an industry in which two networks (CBS and Fox) are greedily rushing projects onto the air to capitalize on the unresolved Menendez case speaks for itself.

More significantly, however, the cable industry also agreed to begin rating its programs and to support proposed legislation that would require new television sets to have an electronic chip that, if the owner wanted, would block out programs that had been encoded with a “V” (for violence) rating. (Of course, the “V” chip essentially would be worthless if the rest of the industry did not join the cable companies in rating programs, and the networks are on record as opposing the idea, fearing the ratings would scare off some advertisers.)

A prediction: Even if the “V” chip were enacted with the cooperation of the entire TV industry, resulting in a dramatic decline in violent programming, it would have virtually no impact on the level of real-life violence.

Although Capitol Hill’s anti-crime bandwagon is practically collapsing under the weight of politicians seeking to blame television for some of the nation’s problems, this is a cynical, quick-fix strategy that will yield few actual benefits. If they were really serious about protecting the health of Americans through legislation, these Big Brothers could do a lot more good by banning cigarette smoking. (Yes, yes, to say nothing about cracking down further on guns.)

But what the heck. If this is what the public wants instead of merely being able to switch channels--if this will be the defining test of whether TV violence causes or contributes to real-life violence--why not give it a try? Why not a law, for example, that not only covers the “V” chip but also combines it with mandatory violence ratings? What would be the harm? At the very least it would temporarily shut up some of TV’s more self-serving critics.

The networks and cable companies would do their own rating, and of course there would be inevitable disputes about the accuracy of their labels. What rating would be applied to shows, for example, that aren’t explicitly violent but create an atmosphere of terror? And what about “The Simpsons,” within which there is frequently a satirical cartoon segment, titled “The Itchy and Scratchy Show,” that’s as violent as anything on television? Would “The Simpsons” be stamped “V” and get swept away in the wash of live-action violence rejected by the electronic chip?


One possible remedy to that dilemma would be a rating system with several levels of “V” to accommodate these shades of difference, which is technologically possible, according to the office of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the House telecommunications subcommittee chairman who has initiated one of the “V” chip bills being pressed on Capitol Hill. In any case, having the industry wield its own “V” would keep the federal government out of program content. Thus, no censorship.

As for the argument that a “V” chip would conflict with the First Amendment, it’s hard to see how. No one’s freedom of expression would be violated any more than the Playboy Channel’s rights are diminished by those cable viewers who choose not to subscribe to it. Instead, parents and other viewers merely would be exercising their own rights to shield their homes from that expression.

Another criticism: Cross one line and it’s an even shorter step to the next one. With a “V” in place, how many chips off the old block? How long before the emergence of mandatory chips in conjunction with such other ratings as “S” for sex, “N” for nudity and “L” for language? Perhaps not very long. But again, what would be the harm?

Of course, this is all futuristic. If “V” chip legislation were enacted today, it would take at least a decade, probably two, to sell enough of the newly equipped sets and allow the system to operate long enough to draw even some preliminary conclusions about the technology’s impact.

And even if nothing was proved, it wouldn’t matter. By then, there will be new bandwagons.