Our newly enacted Telecommunications Reform Act seems designed not to actually reform the industry but rather to guarantee full
employment for lawyers for the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. The so-called V-chip provision has so many logical and practical flaws that I must disagree with Howard Rosenberg's defense of it ("Tuning In to the Great TV Labeling Debate," Calendar, Feb. 19).
I, for one, don't have all that many compunctions about some sort of voluntary rating system as they have had for movies for almost 30 years. The MPAA system has widely increased the artistic freedom of filmmakers. Could Steven Spielberg have made "Schindler's List" with the same degree of wrenching honesty if not for the latitude granted him by the R rating? Of course, the R rating also gives filmmakers the freedom to perpetrate some of the vilest garbage in the history of cinema. That is the price you pay; every silver lining has a dark cloud or two.
But the telecom bill recently signed into law does not simply call for a "voluntary" plan. It mandates one, which is quite a unique interpretation of the word "voluntary."
Scary as a government-designed TV rating system is, that doesn't even begin to cover the idiocy of the V-chip. The problems are more practical than constitutional.
Please, think a moment about exactly what the V-chip is supposed to be: an electronic device that allows parents to protect their children from objectionable programming. But like every new electronic gizmo, 75% of the parents will probably need to ask their kids how to use it. "You want to screen out the Playboy Channel? Don't worry, Dad. I'll take care of it" (wink).
On the less facetious side, how many parents will even bother? How many will, like baby-boomer parents seem wont to do, cave in to their children's desire to watch whatever they want?
Then comes the economic issue. If you want to use the V-chip, you must be able to afford a new television set that has one. This sort of parental control will be a mark of privilege. The poor will have to monitor their children's viewing habits and otherwise be good parents--obvious discrimination.
More serious, but also hilariously ironic when you think about it, is the effect that the V-chip and the attendant rating system would have on television programming. The R rating gives filmmakers a shield for more daring (or just prurient) work. Don't like naked breasts or pubic hair? Don't like decapitations? Don't like the F-word? Well, with an R film, you can't say you weren't warned, can you?
With that example to follow, what kind of changes will we see in television if the V-chip becomes a reality? Will Steven Bochco start scratching his chin and thinking, "Well, as long as the parents of school-age children can block my program, I can start pushing the envelope on the nudity and violence. Who can object? All they have to do is block out my show"?
And network executives might start thinking, "Well, hey, as long as we have the V-chip to protect us from outraged parents, let's show 'Showgirls' uncut in prime time. Think of the ratings."
That's right, ratings. The shows the V-chip blocks out first will probably be quite popular compared to the so-called family shows. Think how R films have almost squeezed the G rating out of the movie marketplace. The "General Audiences" label was for a while almost as much the kiss of death as the X turned out to be. In short, the V-chip could take the family-oriented TV show, already a rarity on today's prime-time schedule, and turn it into a genuinely endangered species.
The V-chip is a technological cheat for avoiding some of the more difficult issues of parenting. The president says this chip is for parents and for the children. Actually, it's a disservice to both.