Thursday, May 03, 2007

TV violence latest excuse for FCC power grab

Under the guise of protecting children, the Federal Communications Commission wants to treat everyone like children, adults included. And this time, it has an ulterior motive.

Last week, the FCC issued a report in which it asks Congress for the authority to regulate TV violence in the same way it regulates sexual content.

The report dances around the main issue, which is the supposedly harmful impact of TV violence on children. As The New York Times reports, the FCC found that “research on whether violent programming had caused children to act more aggressively was inconclusive.”

That is the best the FCC’s pro-censorship chairman, Kevin J. Martin, could come up with.

So, the FCC latched onto one study that claims violent entertainment is associated with increased short-term aggression in children.

The qualifier “short term” is crucial.

A short-term increase in aggressiveness is not the sort of thing that leads children to shoot their classmates. It’s a normal reaction, given that our brains are wired to deal with flight-or-fight situations, even fictional ones. Once the “threat” is over, our normal brain processes resume.

But even if TV violence were the problem Martin makes it out to be, that wouldn’t make the FCC’s report any less insulting.

Prodded by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, broadcast and cable channels began rating their programs using a system similar to the movie industry’s. Since 2000, the FCC has required all TV sets to include “V-Chip” technology, allowing parents to block programs based on those ratings. This, however, isn’t enough for the FCC.

The agency cites a study claiming that nine out of 10 parents don’t use the V-Chip and less than half use the industry’s ratings system. The technology and ratings are available, but parents don’t care.

The FCC concludes that parents cannot be trusted to protect their children from TV violence. But not to worry; the FCC will be a better parent than you are.

I have a different theory. I think most parents aren’t really worried about TV violence, even if they tell pollsters they are. Parents lie to pollsters because people like Dr. Phil McGraw say they should be worried about TV violence, or else they’re bad parents.

And why aren’t parents really worried? Because they grew up with violent TV, too, and they turned out OK, right?

But the FCC’s desire to regulate TV violence has little to do with TV violence.

One of Martin’s pet causes is forcing cable companies to offer channels on an à la carte basis. Consumers would pay only for the channels they want. Regulating TV violence is a means to an end, by which Martin can say à la carte cable would give parents greater control over what their children see.

It may seem pro-consumer to force cable companies to offer their customers only the channels they want to pay for, but it’s a bad deal.

The beauty of cable TV is that it supports channels that target small, niche audiences. Many of those channels would disappear under an à la carte system. Even if you think your cable TV company gives you a lot of worthless channels, chances are you watch at least one channel most of your neighbors think is worthless, too.

Besides, it’s doubtful that à la carte cable would save customers much money. The price of cable per channel would go up, and consumers would get far fewer choices for their dollars.

Whenever the FCC proposes more regulation, it’s up to no good. But between trying to regulate content and kill niche channels, it’s up to twice the usual mischief.

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