Recent legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and in the House of Representatives by Congressman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) calls for the Federal Trade Commission to consider the marketing of adult-rated media to minors an unfair or deceptive practice. The media under consideration include motion pictures, music recording and electronic games. A recent study released by the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council, a non-partisan, grassroots organization, painted a troubling picture of content on television during the 8-9 p.m. “Family Hour.” The study indicates, among other things, that, while quantity of sexual content has fallen, the explicit nature of that content that remains has intensified to include topics that weren’t on television at all a few years ago. Efforts to address decency in the media are both necessary and difficult. With the conflict between the need to adhere to community standards and the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment, the path is narrow and fraught with pitfalls. As a cable operator and a parent, I am imminently aware of the responsibility that is, and should be, placed on the media. While we try to keep our finger on the pulse of what our customers want to see, inevitably what one segment of our audience considers appropriate and acceptable viewing, others will find offensive. In most cases, we make every effort to scramble adult programming or make it available to our adult customers on a pay-per-view basis. Ironically, one of the channels over which your local cable provider has no content control is the city-mandated public access channel. Federal law allows local franchising authorities to require local cable companies to provide production facilities, technical assistance and air time to any member of the public who wishes to use these resources to produce and broadcast whatever they wish, on a first come-first served basis, with no editorial control. While federal law allows local municipalities to make this channel available, it does not require them to do so. Locally, public access programming is the largest source of complaints we receive relative to decency. We try to put the programming on at times when children are unlikely to see it, but we must be careful to avoid being labeled as censors. This is a case of government bureaucrats deciding for the public what is best for the public. The city of Los Angeles has recently hired a consultant to determine what could be done in the future to encourage potential users to produce more access programming. What can parents do? There are many technical options available to parents who want to protect their children from viewing programming that is inappropriate for younger age groups. Most modern televisions with remotes allow viewers a menu selection to delete channels they do not wish to view. The V-Chip, which can be used to block programming with violence or sexual content, is now required in all new televisions sold in the United States. Recent studies have shown that most parents do not utilize this option. Many parents do, however, use the voluntary ratings on television programs to evaluate the appropriateness of the show for their child. The single most important action parents can take to ensure their children are protected from offensive programming is to participate in active viewing with their child. Watch television with your child. Early on, help the child distinguish between fantasy and reality by discussing with your child what they may see in the media, not only in your home, but also in the homes of friends or in public places. Monitor the amount and type of programming your child watches. While there are many worthwhile educational and news programs on television, too much of anything detracts from child development as a well-rounded human being. Discuss with your child what is and is not appropriate for them. Just as there are books with subject matters you would not allow your child to read, there are programs you may not wish your child to view. Make your child aware of these limits and enforce them consistently. Finally, regarding the proposed federal legislation, express yourself. You have a right to your family standards and your belief system. Let your children know what they are, let your cable company know what they are, and let your elected officials know what they are. Decency in society and the media begins at home. Eric Brown is vice president and general manager of Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles.
Commentary—Parents Better Censors Than Legislation