BOSTON -- The concept was really very simple. Here were millions of American homes under assault by an alien culture called Hollywood. Messages and images of sex and violence were being continually lobbed right through the tube and into the living room.
What parent hadn't returned from the kitchen to find a 3-year-old channel-surfing onto a rape scene? Who hadn't come home from a dinner party to discover the 6-year-old cozily watching "NYPD Blue" with the baby sitter?
Maybe parents couldn't rewrite television scripts, but they deserved a sort of star-wars defense system to help screen out assaults.
Out of this concern was born the chip, which its progenitor, Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, dubbed the V-chip. The V was for Violence. With this imperfect but useful tool inserted into the set, parents could begin un-programming the television, and even the kids.
The V-chip became a favorite of the president who talked about it -- everywhere -- as a "parental power chip." He even shamed industry representatives into forming a group to come up with a voluntary ratings system for programming the chip. Punch in the rating and the show wouldn't go on . . . at least not in your living room. The V would be for Victory.
Now fast-forward to the present and guess what? The plug has been pulled on the parental power. The industry's system will rate shows by half a dozen age groups. But it won't tell parents a thing about the content. A parent won't know whether the show has been rated TV-PG on account of V for Violence, S for Sex or L for Foul Language.
The always colorful Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America and chair of the industry group, turns V for Violet when he defends the ratings scheme. Thursday at a high-decibel press conference, he compared it proudly to the movie-ratings system he devised some 28 years ago.
The very folks
These movie ratings always struck this parent as rather wimpy. But at least movies are rated by a panel of parents. The folks who will rate the TV shows under this scheme are the very folks who produce them.
I hope it is not too cynical to suggest that producers may have a less-than-objective view of their own culpability. Or a greater-than-average desire for a wide audience. (V as in Venal?) But these are the same folks, after all, who upped the sexual content of the so-called "family hour" fourfold in two decades.
As Congressman Markey said, "If you look up 'conflict of interest' in the dictionary you will see that it is defined as 'letting TV producers rate their own shows.' "
In dueling press conferences, Mr. Valenti reminded Mr. Markey and anyone else listening that the V in the V-chip really stands for "Voluntary." The FCC has the right to disapprove these guidelines but it is a voluntary system. Mr. Valenti let it be known that the industry won't abide by any ratings except its own. Anyone who tries to make it tougher will, he said, see them in court.
The driver's seat
Now, I don't want to get Mr. Valenti more riled up. (V for Vindictive?) But these guidelines are intended to be for parents, not producers. That's the point. The president promised parents that "new technologies can put you back in the driver's seat in your life." The driver's seat, not the passenger's seat.
What do parents want? In one survey, some 80 percent preferred a content-based system over an age-based system.
Researcher Joanne Cantor sums up their views this way: "We know our own children and we care about different things. Some of us care about language, some don't. We also know that children are very different at the same age. We need to know what is in the show and then we can decide."
Technically, the chip is set up to handle a system that rates shows by the degree of violence, sex and language. And several of the premium cable movie channels have been giving this level of advance warning to viewers for years.
Not even the most elaborate and sophisticated chip can solve the problem of children and television. As activist Peggy Charren says sensibly, "Parents have to keep talking to kids about what they see. There's no technological solution to parenting."
But if the industry has its way the V in the V-chip will stand for Vague, Vapid and Vacuous. This time the only proper V-sign would be a very public Veto.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/17/96