Markey chips away at TV violence

An open letter to participants in today’s TV violence summit:

I am glad the television industry has called today’s summit on TV violence. Parents throughout the nation hold high expectations for the summit — anxious that it might help stem the tide of violent programming that invades their living rooms. You will help decide whether their hopes will be met, or whether the more cynical view will prove accurate — that you can’t expect an industry profiting from violence to take effective action against itself.

I have welcomed the industry’s recent actions to provide advisories about shows that they consider excessively violent for children. But an advisory is only a warning, not a defense. Like a smoke alarm, it tells you there’s a fire but it doesn’t put it out.

The news is that with regard to TV violence, we have the technology not only to give a warning but also to put out the fire. For less than a dollar per set we can encode a computer chip to allow parents to block all shows rated violent — just by touching a single button on their remote control. It’s cheap, it’s easy and it works. But unless the industry is willing to send the advance warning electronically in the broadcast signal, parents will not be able to block these programs.

Hollywood has often led the nation on important social issues, but the industry is in grave danger of being left far behind on the movement to roll back the tide of violence in this country. Certainly it should reduce the use of gratuitous violence. Certainly it must dedicate itself to programming that demonstrates to children non-violent means of resolving conflict and dealing with anger. But if the summit ducks the issue of parental empowerment by failing to support the adoption of V-Block technology, it will have failed parents and the cynics will have become prophets.

No one says violence on TV is the main cause of violence in our society; but virtually no one refutes the overwhelming evidence demonstrating the causal link between violence on TV and the high incidence of violence in real life. Says Dr. William H. Dietz of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Televised violence has a clear and reproducible effect on the behavior of children (and) the frequency with which violence is used to resolve conflict.”

This year the industry has taken a big step by acknowledging its responsibility. Many cable programmers and the four broadcast networks have announced that they would broadcast advisories about upcoming violent shows — a veritable electronic epiphany. That’s why they have called today’s summit. But the industry is actively opposing my attempts to allow parents to have the power to push that single V-Block button on their remote control to protect their kids from each and every excessively violent show.

The V-Block technology is readily available and will cost next to nothing. Better yet, it will take only a small percentage of parents using the technology for the networks to see declining ratings on their most violent primetime shows — thereby sending the message that counts. And this plan is consistent with the First Amendment rights of producers and programmers to air violent shows while it simultaneously empowers parents to protect children from violent programming.

Ted Turner endorsed V-Block, saying it “will give parents a chance to control their children’s viewing,” and the cable and satellite industries in general recognize the value of giving parents this choice. But broadcasters are refusing to broadcast the electric signal that will tell the V-Block chip which shows to block.

For years parents have been told if they don’t like what’s on TV, they should turn it off. Now technology has made it possible for parents to do just that — in an easy, effective, targeted way and, most important, even when they are not there to pull the plug.

TV has made it possible for the average American child to witness 8,000 murders by the end of elementary school without ever leaving the living room. It’s time for the industry to give parents the technology they need to reduce drastically the violent images now saturating their own homes.

As you participate in the summit I hope that you will urge the industry to give parents the power to protect their own children. Let them have the V-Block technology.

(Markey (D-Mass.) chairs the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Telecommunications & Finance.)

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