The FCC has just issued its long-awaited report on Violent Television Programming and Its Impact on Children. Unsurprisingly, it recommends that the government should assume a great role in regulating the video content that comes into our homes. The agency concludes that: “We believe that further action to enable viewer-initiated blocking of violent television content would serve the government’s interests in protecting the well-being of children and facilitating parental supervision and would be reasonably likely to be upheld as constitutional.” (p. 15)
Ironically, however, the FCC’s report goes on to undercut its own argument for regulation again and again because of the stunning level of ambiguity surrounding everything they propose. For example, in the second paragraph of the report, the FCC notes that “A broad range of television programming aired today contains [violent] content, including, for example, cartoons, dramatic series, professional sports such as boxing, news coverage, and nature programs.” Is the agency saying such things could be regulated? They never tell us.
Or consider the endless number of questions raised by this paragraph on pages 20-21:
We believe that developing an appropriate definition of excessively violent programming would be possible, but such language needs to be narrowly tailored and in conformance with judicial precedent. Any definition would need to be clear enough to provide fair warning of the conduct required. A definition sufficient to give notice of upcoming violent programming content to parents and potential viewers could make use of, or be a refinement of, existing voluntary rating system definitions or could make use of definitions used in the research community when studying the consequences of violent programming. For more restrictive time channeling rules, a definition based on the scientific literature discussed above, which recognizes the factors most important to determining the likely impact of violence on the child audience, could be developed. For example, such a definition might cover depictions of physical force against an animate being that, in context, are patently offensive. In determining whether such depictions are patently offensive, the Government could consider among other factors the presence of weapons, whether the violence is extensive or graphic, and whether the violence is realistic. (p. 20-21)
Let’s try to unpack some of this because defining “excessive violence” is really the core of this debate.
When the agency says “an appropriate definition of excessively violent programming… needs to be narrowly tailored and in conformance with judicial precedent,” does the agency not realize that there is no such judicial precedent to look to here because what the FCC is proposing here is completely unprecedented?
When the agency says “a definition based on the scientific literature… which recognizes the factors most important to determining the likely impact of violence on the child audience” are they suggesting that a team of child psychologists should sign off on what programming is allowed or forbidden?
And does the agency really clarify things any when it says: “such a definition might cover depictions of physical force against an animate being that, in context, are patently offensive. In determining whether such depictions are patently offensive, the Government could consider among other factors the presence of weapons, whether the violence is extensive or graphic, and whether the violence is realistic.” Needless to say, “depictions of physical force against an animate being that… are patently offensive” is a fairly open-ended regulatory mandate.
And saying that “patently offensive” programming might be defined so as to include “the presence of weapons, whether the violence is extensive or graphic, and whether the violence is realistic” doesn’t really help us all that much. Would “Saving Private Ryan” or “Schindler’s List” be regulated under that standard? Where would news reports or documentaries about wars fall under that standard?
And when the agency talks about “whether the violence is realistic” as part of the standard, which way do they mean? If the violence is more realistic, is that good or bad? I ask that question because I sometimes hear some media critics bemoaning the fact that fantasy or animated violence doesn’t portray the actual consequences of violence.
We get no answers to any of these questions. The ambiguity in this report is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. (Wait, bad analogy.. The FCC might fine me for that!)
But don’t take my word about the ambiguous, open-ended nature of this report or the Pandora’s Box of regulatory shenanigans that the FCC is opening up here. Listen to what FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein had to say about the report in his statement today:
The Commission has not been able to formulate and recommend a definition of violence that would cover the majority of violent content that is inappropriate for children, provide fair guidance to programmers, and stand a decent chance of withstanding constitutional scrutiny, in light of judicial precedent. While we may want to define prohibited-violence and regulate it in conformance with constitutional standards, the Report does not refer to any court or judicial scholar that has suggested such definition is available or probable.
To the contrary, the Report diminishes the extent to which courts have either expressed serious skepticism or invalidated efforts to regulate violent content. I believe we have an obligation to provide Congress with the complete analysis of this “jurisprudential quagmire,” whereby “any regulation of television violence confronts an inherent tradeoff between precision and effectiveness” and “any restriction in this area that is neither overboard nor vague will leave unregulated so much violent programming that it will no longer accomplish a compelling interest.”
The central tension we face is that adults’ access to violent programming is protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The difficult question is precisely which violent programming, if any, the government can regulate in the interest of protecting children. That question — the most challenging Congress faces — is never answered here.
Wanna make a bet those paragraphs are quoted by the Supreme Court when they strike all this down in a couple of years as a blatant violation of the First Amendment?
Are Parents Completely Incompetent?
But let’s just set aside all those meddlesome First Amendment matters for a moment and talk about some the other flawed assumptions upon which the agency’s report is built.
Reading through this report, one is struck by the fact that the FCC seems to think that parents are completely incompetent and that only benevolent-minded bureaucrats can save the day from objectionable fare that enters the home. The agency repeats the criticisms leveled by media critics and regulatory activists like the Parents Television Council and Morality in Media who claim that technical controls (ratings, V-Chip, cable set-top box controls, etc) have been a failure. The report concludes that: “although the V-chip and TV ratings system appear useful in the abstract, they are not effective at protecting children from violent content (p. 3)”… and “it does not appear that cable operator-provided advanced parental controls are available on a sufficient number of cable-connected television sets to be considered an effective solution at this time.” (p. 15).
Ironically, the FCC can’t even figure out what it really wants to say on this front. Consider this rather remarkable paragraph on pg. 17:
Experience also leads us to question whether such a ratings system would ever be sufficiently accurate given the myriad of practical difficulties that would accompany any comprehensive effort to ensure the accuracy of ratings. Moreover, such a requirement may have an unintended practical consequence. There is some evidence that TV ratings may actually serve to attract certain underage viewers to programming that is violent or is otherwise labeled as not intended for a child audience.
What a peculiar argument. On the one hand, the FCC tells us that the current TV ratings don’t work because they don’t provide parents enough information. But here, on the other hand, they’re saying that if the ratings system worked perfectly and described violent content accurately then the old “forbidden fruit” problem would kick in and kids would just try harder to watch such programming. Basically, there’s just no winning with the agency; they seem determined to find a justification for regulating using any rationale possible.
But what of the argument that the current ratings and blocking tools are ineffective? It’s rubbish. Either the FCC and the critics have never bothered trying to use the tools or they are nit-picking with the definitions of certain types of content that they feel was offensive and not blocked by a certain rating. That’s the problem with arguments like those made by the Parents Television Council and other regulatory advocates. In an attempt to persuade regulators to reshape television through regulation in the way they desire, these critics claim that certain words or images should have been screened according to their standards. Is “bitch” an indecent word? The PTC thinks so. But many in the public use it every day. So when a TV programmer doesn’t tighten a show’s rating because that word is uttered, is that really a failure of the ratings system? Same goes for violence. A pillow fight on the Brady Bunch would probably lead to calls for an “TV-MA” rating from some of these groups.
What critics consistently forget–or perhaps intentionally ignore–is that media ratings and content labeling efforts are not an exact science; they are fundamentally subjective exercises. Ratings are based on value judgments made by humans who all have somewhat different values. Those doing the rating are being asked to evaluate artistic expression and assign labels to it that provide the rest of us with some rough proxies about what is in that particular piece of art, or what age group should (or should not) be consuming it. Thus, the critics can always claim there are “flaws” in a ratings systems but that’s only because humans all have different perspectives and values that they will use to label or classify content. But that doesn’t mean the ratings can’t be an effective tool that can help parents screen out a great deal of material they might find undesirable.
But let’s forget about ratings and technical controls like the V-Chip and set-top boxes for a moment. Why? Because many parents forget about them. That is, many parents just ignore technical controls altogether and opt for informal household media rules instead. In fact, a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that “Almost all parents say they have some type of rules about their children’s use of media.” And a 2006 Kaiser survey of families with infants and preschoolers revealed that 85 percent of those parents who let their children watch TV at that age have rules about what their child can and cannot watch. 63 percent of those parents say they enforce those rules all of the time. (Incidentally, about the same percentage of parents said they had similar rules for video game and computer usage.)
Parents employ a wide variety of household media consumption rules. Some of these can be quite formal in the sense that parents make the rules clear and enforce them routinely in the home over a long period of time. Other media consumption rules can be fairly informal, however, and be enforced on a more selective basis. Regardless, these household media consumption rules can be grouped into three general categories: (1) “Where” rules; (2) “When and how much” rules; and, (3) “Under what conditions” rules.
For example, many families establish “where” rules regarding the placement of TVs or other media devices in the home. In our home, my wife and I have assigned our kids a specific TV for the limited selection of programming we allow them watch and that TV is located in the living room where we keep and eye or ear on what their kids are watching at all times. And all of us probably heard this “under what condition” rule at some point in our childhood: “You have to finish your homework before you get to watch any TV.” And an example of a “when and how much” rule would be: “No TV or video games after 8:00,” or, more stringently: “No TV or games on a school night.”
Many families get even more creative by devising a “media allowance” for their children (especially as they get older) to allow them to consume media within certain boundaries. In our home, my wife and I generally allow our kids one hour of TV viewing per night on weeknights, and two hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Carrot-and-stick incentives can also be used with this approach. For example, better behavior or improved grades at school might be rewarded by adding additional viewing time to their overall weekly media allowance.
Of course, there’s a fourth category that could be added to the list of informal household media rules listed above: “what” rules. As in, what we allow our kids to watch at all. According to The Pew Internet & American Life Project, 77 percent of parents already have rules for what TV shows their kids can watch, 67 percent have rules for what kind of video games they can play, and 85 percent have rules about what Internet websites they can and cannot visit.
And there are countless other examples of such formal and informal household media rules, or the creative use of new technologies to control children’s media consumption. My wife and I have developed a strategy of designating a specific television in our home for most of our children’s media consumption and then using a personal video recorder to amass a large library of programming we believe is educational, enriching and appropriate for them. Dozens of programs can be cataloged and archived in this fashion and then supplemented with VHS tapes, DVDs and computer software. As a result, when we allow our children some TV time, we always know that the episodes of “Dora the Explorer,” “Go Diego Go,” “Blue’s Clues” and “The Wiggles” that we approve of for our kids will be available. Needless to say, such content tailoring was not an option for families in the past. [I summarize all these things in my forthcoming PFF special report Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, due out in early June.]
Such informal household media rules are a vitally important, yet frequently overlooked, part of this debate. In fact, the FCC never even bothers mentioning such things in its new report. Certainly a few of the good folks down at the FCC are parents themselves. Do they not have such household media rules at work in their homes? I bet they do. And I bet a significant percentage of them just ignore all the other technologies altogether and opt exclusively for such informal household rules like many other American households.
But if you’re focused on adding fuel to the flames of an already burning political crusade, then I suppose you wouldn’t want to mention things like this. The FCC just asks us to believe that parents are completely helpless against these supposed technological “invaders” into our homes. You know… those damn $2,000 televisions that magically walked into our homes, and those meddlesome $50-a-month cable and satellite boxes and subscriptions. How dare they those devices come into our homes uninvited and make us watch them! Please FCC… save us from ourselves!
But the Whole World is Going to Hell, Right?
Of course, this entire debate is premised on the theory that any exposure to violent television is going to turn our kids into aggressive thugs or worse. The FCC seems to buy that argument hook, line and sinker. Like many media critics, the FCC is convinced that the “scientific” literature on media violence is a closed case and that exposure to violent materials results in real-world aggression. A lot of psychological studies have made that claim and asked us to believe in a “monkey see, monkey do” theory of media effects.
But it’s important to realize that the academic literature on the effects of media violence is not nearly as unified as you might think. In fact, as Dr. Edward Fink of the Department of Radio-TV-Film at California State University-Fullerton, notes, you can find endless reports to support just about any thesis you want to believe in:
Do you want to believe that TV violence is bad? Plenty of research there. One example comes from Dr. L. Rowell Huesmann and associates in the American Psychological Association journal Developmental Psychology, March 2003. They found that a high level of TV violence in childhood is a predictor of more-aggressive behavior in adulthood.
Do you want to believe that TV violence is not necessarily bad? There’s plenty of stuff! One example comes from Dr. Ron Warren in the Broadcast Education Association’s Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, September 2003. He found that parental mediation of children’s TV viewing can both inhibit negative effects and enhance positive effects.
Do you want to believe both? Once again, a bounty of data! One example is the comprehensive National Television Violence Study, published by the University of California, Santa Barbara. It concludes, “Television can be a powerful influence on social mores concerning violence and aggression, for good or for ill.”
Others have confirmed this academic schizophrenia and pointed out that, if anything, the literature on this subject is ambiguous at best and perhaps even leans against the “causal hypothesis” that media violence leads to aggressive behavior. Psychologist Jonathan L. Freedman conducted the most comprehensive review of all the major literature on this subject for his book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence.
Freedman concluded that “the results do not support the view that exposure to media violence causes children or anyone else to become aggressive or to commit crimes; nor does it support the idea that it causes people to be less sensitive to real violence.” Freedman collected and reviewed all the laboratory experiments, field experiments, longitudinal studies, and other studies employing mixed methodologies. He concluded that “not one type of research provided the kind of supportive evidence that is ordinarily required to support a hypothesis. Not one found 90 percent supportive or 80 percent supportive or 70 percent supportive or even 50 percent. In fact, regardless of the method used, fewer than half the studies found results that supported the [causal] hypothesis–sometimes considerably fewer than half.”
Finally, when we step outside the laboratory setting and examine real world trends in a search for a supposed casual link we don’t find one there either. Consider, for example, the reversal of various social indicators over the past decade. According to FBI reports, juvenile murder, rape, robbery and assault are all down significantly over the past decade. Aggregate violent crime by juveniles fell by a whopping 39% from 1995-2005. The biggest components of that decline were the 52% drop in juvenile robbery and the 64% drop in the juvenile murder rate. Again, while all these social trends were greatly improving, media exposure–including exposure to violent fare–was supposedly increasing according to the FCC and other media critics.
These results do not conclusively rule out a link between exposure to violence media content and violent acts in the real world. But they should at least call into question the “world-is-going-to-hell” sort of generalizations made by proponents of increased media regulation who all too often make casual inferences about the relationship between media exposure and youth behaviors.
How do the critics respond to the fact that their theories don’t match up with real-world realities? They don’t. Their silence on this point is really quite stunning. But I guess they figure that real-world facts can be ignored when they have publicly-funded, artificial lab experiments that say there might be a link. Until the supporters of the “monkey see, monkey do” hypothesis can come up with a good explanation for why their thesis is at odds with real-world social indicators, it will be difficult to take them seriously. And their theories cannot be used to support government regulation of media content.
Incidentally, in the context of video games, that’s exactly what every court that has looked at this issue has concluded. Following efforts to regulate violent video games, 10 different courts across the U.S. have been asked to take a look at the “media effects” literature about exposure to violent programming and its effect on real-world aggression. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM has concluded that no such link has been proven. As a result, every state and local effort to regulate video games based on the supposed harm to children has been thrown out as unconstitutional and the governments in question were even forced to pay the gaming industry’s attorney’s fees! The FCC doesn’t bother considering any of this important jurisprudence in its new order. But you better believe that other courts will look at those decisions once any new TV violence regulations are implemented and then litigated.
Conclusion: Wither Personal Responsibility?
The Parents Television Council, which seems to have the ear of FCC officials on this and other content regulation issues, has an interesting motto: “Because Our Children Are Watching.” It’s a tagline they use all over their website and in all their printed materials. Presumably it means that they believe regulation is justified because our children are watching television in our homes.
But whenever I see that “Because Our Children Are Watching” tagline I always ask myself: Why? Why are you’re children watching? Why are you letting your children watch shows you might find offensive or harmful? Do you not exercise any control over your kids? Do they run the household, or do you? Weren’t you the one to bring those TVs, cable boxes and satellite dishes home? Did you not set up any ground rules about what they can watch once you brought those things into the home? Do you not limit their viewing time? Do you not turn the TV off and make them do other things? Do you not talk to them about what’s on TV, what you find inappropriate, and what the difference is between fantasy and reality?
Honestly, I just don’t get it. Why do critics like the PTC and their many allies in this fight give lip service to the notion that parents should be the “first line of defense” in terms of the video programming that enters the home, but then they turn around and vociferously advocate that five unelected bureaucrats at the FCC step in an as a surrogate parent for our children? Let us be clear on this point: If you advocate a role for the government in terms of regulating violent programming on television then you have made those regulators the primary party in charge of what comes into the home. When government regulates speech it acts on everyone’s behalf and tells us what it thinks is best for ALL OF US and ALL FAMILIES.
That’s not how things should work in a free society. Decisions about acceptable media content are extraordinarily personal; no two people or families will have the same set of values, especially in a nation as diverse as ours. Consequently, it would be optimal if public policy decisions in this field took into account the extraordinary diversity of citizen / household tastes and left the ultimate decision about acceptable content to them. That’s especially the case in light of the fact that most U.S. households are made up entirely of adults. According to the Census Bureau, only one-third of U.S. households include children under the age of 18.
Whatever happened to personal and parental responsibility in this country? I’m looking out for my own kids. FCC officials and the media critics should look out for theirs and quit treating the rest of us like we’re all children.