As someone who has closely followed the ongoing hullabaloo over sex, violence and dirty language on television, I can't shake the feeling that I'm stuck watching the "Epilogue" segment of a really bad Quinn-Martin production. Yesterday, as anyone with a working television undoubtedly already knows, the television industry finally released the long-awaited "voluntary" rating system that will be used in conjunction with the V-Chip.
The system is, of course, "voluntary" only in an Orwellian sense — a rating system was mandated as part of the V-Chip legislation passed by Congress earlier this year, which requires that by January 1998, every new television set with a screen 13 inches or bigger be equipped with the "V- Chip," an electronic device viewers can use to block unwanted programs from reaching their screen. The TV folks — rarely models of originality — based their categories on those used by the Motion Picture Association of America, assigning age-based ratings ranging from TV-Y (appropriate for all children) to TV-M ("mature audiences" only).
You might have expected that the forces of light — in this case, a sort of Love Boat ensemble that pulls together everyone from Janet Reno to Bill Bennett — would be breaking out the bubbly right around now. After all, their triumph seems complete: Those responsible for what the crusaders variously describe as "sleaze," "sewage," "garbage," "junk" and "crapola" have been unmasked as villains, forced to admit their guilt and put in chains. Time for the gang to start child-proofing some other part of the wide, wide world! And their arch-enemies, those of us troubled by the very notion of ratings, are left shouting back at our screens: "If TV violence is so bad, why haven't the researchers who tally up all the shootings, beatings and murder become super-predators? If Popeye the Sailor Man is really a role model, why don't more kids join the Merchant Marines?"
But in a surprise ending straight out of Scooby-Doo, the watchdogs started barking and howling at the proposed system even before it was officially unveiled, complaining that it isn't specific enough about the various kinds of nastiness available on TV. "They've produced a turkey," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), self-styled standard bearer of the "revolt of the revolted." And Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), seconded the point, complaining that the industry has "proposed a toothless system that tells parents nothing about whether a show contains violence, sexual content or profanity."
Such preemptive outrage speaks volumes about the do-gooders' real aims. In truth, the argument has nothing to do with ratings, per se. Indeed, as all the press conferences and soundbites we watched on yesterday's news make clear, this children's crusade has never been about accurate labeling. The point has always been to change what actually gets broadcast through the flexing of government muscle. In simpler times, this was known as censorship.
Despite occasional protestations to the contrary, the backers of V-Chip and ratings legislation have been pretty up front on this point. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the original sponsor of the TV laws, once told the Los Angeles Times, "You know what, [labeling shows for sex, violence and profanity] does have the potential of changing the economics of programming." Other ratings proponents have been blunter still. In 1993, Janet Reno told a Senate panel that if the entertainment industry didn't voluntarily reduce the amount of violence on TV, "government action will be imperative." Former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) has pronounced: "Labeling violence is not a substitute for reducing the amount of violent programs on television."
To date, it has been pretty difficult to fight the anti-TV crowd with the old slippery slope argument: "First they came for the Power Rangers…" But perhaps the do-gooders' own argument will change all that. Their out-of-hand dismissal of the industry's ratings suggests what's really at stake. "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," Markey told Time Magazine in disgust, implying that someone else — an "expert" panel? the government? Markey himself? — should get the job.
Maybe we'll have one of those deus ex machina endings that TV specializes in, and viewers themselves will decide to think about the programming problem. At the very least, a few of them may turn to their own Webster's, where they'll find a better definition of the word "voluntary" than the one that's been bandied about so loosely in the halls of power. At any rate, the debate's not over yet, and the next few episodes should make for some real must-see TV.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Salon, and can be viewed in that format here.