FCC can stop kidding themselves

Having spent years failing to craft a coherent policy regarding televised indecency, Democratic legislators and the Federal Communications Commission are groping to add violence to their regulatory comedy act.

Yet if they’re truly committed to helping parents navigate a confounding TV dial — as opposed to just flapping their gums with grasping-for-moral-high-ground rhetoric — there is a potential solution, one that could assist parents without reducing television to pabulum for the vast majority of adults who don’t live with someone under the age of 16.

After years of expecting parents to master the V-chip, TV content ratings and everything short of the Dewey-decimal system, TiVo or its digital-video recorder equivalent could be the answer. Indeed, it’s an approach upon which many tech-fluent parents have already stumbled, confining children’s viewing to programs allowed through TiVo’s filter along with whatever DVDs they purchase. In this way, they eliminate channel-surfing or any other happenstance way kids might encounter inappropriate content.

The result, parents will tell you, is tots who don’t know much about TV networks or schedules, only how to punch up their specific programs.

Richard Frank, the former Disney Studios chairman, once said when he asked his granddaughter to name her favorite network, she said, “TiVo.” Asked why, the girl explained that was the place where she found all her shows.

Similarly, some parents with TiVo report that their tykes are befuddled when they go to someone else’s house and can’t access an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” whenever they wish.

Seizing on this consumer practice, TiVo joined with various nonprofit orgs last year to create KidZone, a no-cost service that makes it simple to limit children’s viewing to a pre-approved programming menu. And if that sounds complicated, it’s a helluva lot easier than — and infinitely preferable to — the ridiculous notion that government can somehow banish all violence or sexuality until after every minor is in bed.

Joe Miller, TiVo’s senior VP of sales and marketing, says the company basically recognized an opportunity to increase its value to parents by assisting them based on the way they were already employing the device.

“It certainly appeals to parents … because of the control it gives you over media in your house,” he says.

Now here’s where legislators, if they were serious about “protecting children,” can put up or shut up. Because while the problem might appear insurmountable, remember that only a minority of U.S. homes have young children living in them.

Nielsen TV universe data indicates there are about 52 million children under 15 in the U.S., and that only 36% of households have a minor (meaning under 18) living there — a figure that drops well below a third as the scale slides down to kids.

With TiVo available for as little as $69 and cable operators offering knockoffs for a small monthly fee, Congress could underwrite the technology for low-income families for, say, $400 million — far less than has been squandered on mismanaged spending in Iraq. “It’s not a digital-divide issue,” Miller notes, which separates media haves from have-nots.

Of course, placing a TiVo in every pot — or rather, in the hands of every parent willing to be even remotely proactive in deciding what their children see — might seem like a mission impossible; still, were those outraged congressmen genuine in their crusading, it’s really not.

For starters, if TV is as damaging to kids as they warn, it’s a small preventative investment — the ultimate media prophylactic. As a bonus, it would also help ensure the entertainment industry stays robust by not entangling the creative process in legislation — recognizing that media is a sector where the U.S. enjoys a trade surplus, serving as an exporter to the world.

Admittedly, it’s an ambitious proposal. Yet after years of talking about technology’s theoretical ability to bandage this long-festering wound, the gadgetry has finally caught up with the industry’s alibis — placing the onus where it belongs, on parents, while giving them tools to do the job.

Should such a scheme succeed, culture warriors would have to find themselves a new family-values issue to flog. Then again, wouldn’t it be nice even for them, just once, to actually solve a problem rather than merely gripe about it?

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