Tolerable TV Censorship?

HARTFORD — Hartford -- In the cultural-political wars of 1995, a magic word has emerged: choice.

Choice, not in the sense of the best -- choice meat, choice role, choice selection. But choice as in options -- power, control, self-determination. Choice is how abortion-rights advocates frame our position. Choice is the operative concept in the drive for school vouchers. Choice has become one of those words that public relations consultants and political strategists chant in their sleep.


It is no wonder, then, that we now have the "parental choice chip." No, it is not the latest in interactive cookies. But it does embody an idea free-speech types have heretofore found difficult to swallow -- a ratings system for television programs, with an in-set device enabling parents to screen out the more violent and/or sexually explicit fare.

Choice is, indeed, a seductive sell. Because in this case, I have to say, I'm pretty much ready to buy in.


Not that I want the government determining, or having any kind of an official say over, the hormonal rantings of "Beavis and Butt-head" or the blood content of "ER." Nor should the timing of these or any other shows be restricted or prescribed by Jesse Helms. In general, I think it's better to err on the side of free expression over even the threat of censorship.

But leaving the content of television where it belongs -- with the producers, the directors, the actors, doesn't mean we, the viewers, can't be informed about what that content is.

What's wrong with letting us know that Dennis Franz is going to bare his behind on "NYPD Blue"? What's wrong with letting us know that some nutso scorned wife is going to hack up her husband's lover on screen?

I can think of more than a few folks who've been lured, as well as those who've been repelled, by these "adult content" disclaimers already being offered by the networks. What's wrong with giving us more of this kind of information, and then letting us make our choices accordingly?

The only real argument against the "V-chip" (the V is for violence), is that the proposal now in Congress would require private industry to provide the chip and the ratings system. I suspect, though, that the likelihood of such a proposal becoming law -- it has already passed the Senate and is pending in the House -- will produce voluntary action on both counts.

On a more philosophical level, the free-speech arguments I've heard against the V-chip have been less than convincing, this old saw being perhaps the least convincing of all: "We already have a technological fix for parents who want to control what their kids watch -- it's called the off button," declared an anti-chip spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Well, that's like saying there's no need for seat belts; you can walk. You don't need food labels; you can starve.

Given that television is a staple of modern life, the just-turn-it-off argument is just irrelevant. Besides, the "parental supervision" of old isn't as easy to invoke today as it once was. Parents are busier, and TV fare is bloodier and steamier than ever.


And the ACLU rap poses, perhaps inadvertently, a critical question: What is the big difference between the V-chip and the off button? The V-chip is merely a more refined version of the off button. It's more selective. It increases our control. It enhances our choice.

Gratuitous violence and exploitative sex in our culture are not the fault of Norman Lear, and no chip -- V or otherwise -- is going to make them disappear. Even if we have the power to wipe them off our screens, they'll still exist, and they'll still threaten us, our children and our society at large.

But neither is additional information about the content of television going to wipe out the First Amendment or muzzle free speech. Even if the V-chip does become a standard feature of our TV sets, there's no saying we have to use it.

It would be our choice.

Barbara T. Roessner is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.