Among my fondest childhood memories are the times I spent sitting on my grandmother’s lap, laughing my way through countless episodes of The Three Stooges. Often she’d recall first seeing particularly funny scenes as she grew up in the 1930s, or watching them again with my mother in the 1950s. Some might question my grandmother’s choice of entertainment for her child and grandchild. After all, it presented plenty of unforgivingly violent moments: how many handsaws and hammers did Moe use on poor Curly’s head and hands!
Would The Three Stooges constitute “excessively violent” programming unfit for a young child? It’s a tough question, and it’s at the center of a new Federal Communications Commission report, Violent Television Programming and Its Impact on Children. The report begins by noting that “a broad range of television programming aired today contains [violent] content, including, for example, cartoons, dramatic series, professional sports such as boxing, news coverage, and nature programs.” Claiming that “there is strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term,” the FCC recommends that Congress give it the authority to regulate “excessively violent” television programming, even though the commission deftly evades defining that term in the report. Broadcast TV, the report suggests, should show such programming only after 10:00 PM. And lawmakers should also sanitize pay TV—by banning the sale of cable bundles, and instead requiring cable companies to sell subscribers individual channels.
The FCC is opening a regulatory Pandora’s box. How does it intend to define “excessively violent”? Will a Jack Bauer torture scene on 24 be okay before 10 PM? Are movies like Saving Private Ryan, The Passion of the Christ, and The Chronicles of Narnia too violent for broadcast or basic cable TV? Fight-infested hockey games? Live war footage from Baghdad? Once five unelected bureaucrats at the FCC start handing out fines for programs that cross some arbitrary standard of good taste, media industries will certainly strike back, citing the First Amendment to challenge the government until, after a long and costly legal dance, the Supreme Court probably strikes down the new regulatory regime.
The FCC does suggest that its proposed rules might pass constitutional muster. In the famous 1978 case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, a slim 5–4 Supreme Court majority allowed the government to regulate broadcast television because it was “uniquely pervasive” in society and an “invader” into the home. But that logic was always dubious and is even more so today: $2,000 televisions and $50-a-month cable subscriptions don’t just barge into our homes. We invite them in. Once we do, it seems sensible to expect us to exercise some control over what our kids watch.
That’s another major difference between now and then: parents have much more power to decide what their children see on TV. In the past, many believed that the government needed to act as a surrogate for parents, whose only technological control was the off button. Today, as I document in my forthcoming book, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, parents can filter or tailor programming in many ways. There’s the V-Chip, which won’t allow a TV set to show programs with ratings that a parent has declared off-limits. New cable and satellite set-top boxes also offer a variety of screening tools. Better yet are the ultimate parental control devices: DVD players and personal video recorders. (My wife and I have almost every episode of Dora the Explorer and The Wiggles archived for our kids.)
Even more important, though, are the rules that parents impose. A 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that “almost all parents say they have some type of rules about their children’s use of media.” In my book, I identify four kinds of household media rules: “where” rules (assigning a place for TV viewing); “when and how much” rules (creating a media allowance); “under what conditions” rules (carrot-and-stick incentives); and “what” rules (specifying the programs that kids can and cannot watch). These household rules are actually more effective in controlling children’s viewing habits than technological controls. But the FCC report doesn’t even mention them.
The FCC is also going to have a hard time convincing the courts why pervasiveness-based rationales for TV regulation make sense in a world of media abundance. Has the FCC heard of the Internet, YouTube, iPods, PlayStation Portables, and cell phones? Most kids have, and that’s increasingly where they watch TV shows today. The FCC won’t accomplish much by regulating CSI on broadcast TV or cable when anyone can download it instantly on CBS’s Innertube website or on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Live Marketplace. Continuing to regulate TV as if it’s still 1970, therefore, means little more than protecting adults from themselves as kids flock to alternative media outlets.
But what about the “monkey see, monkey do” argument that violent television is spawning a generation of aggressive kids? It will be hard for the FCC to sell the courts on that hypothesis, too, since the juvenile violence rate has plummeted by almost 40 percent over the past 10 years, according to the FBI. Moreover, in recent video-game-related cases, ten different courts—after evaluating the literature about the effects of violent programming on children—have concluded that no link between violent programs and violent behavior has been proven. As a result, every state and local attempt to regulate video games based on supposed harm to kids has been thrown out as unconstitutional. Again, the FCC ignores these facts in its new report.
This is not to say that there isn’t violent fare on TV today: I could cite a long list of shows that my wife and I don’t let our kids watch. And many parents, concerned about those shows, will doubtless endorse the FCC’s new regulatory push to clean up television. It’s questionable whether that push would actually work, but in any case, it’s not the FCC’s job to serve as national den mother. It should be up to parents to decide what their children can see on TV.