When the Chips Are Off


In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton urged Congress "to pass the requirement for a 'V' chip in TV sets, so that parents can screen out programs they believe are inappropriate for their children." He said the technology would enable parents "to assume more personal responsibility for their children's upbringing."

This was an odd way to characterize the V-chip, which actually represented an abdication of parental responsibility. Instead of monitoring what their kids watch and deciding for themselves what was appropriate, parents would rely on ratings assigned by the networks. There would be no need for active supervision or discussion: Once the V-chip was programmed, everything would be automatic.

Naturally, the idea of helping Americans be better parents without getting more involved in their children's lives proved irresistible to Congress. Parents liked it too: In an April 1999 poll, 77 percent said they would use the V-chip if they had a TV equipped with one.

The V-chip requirement took effect in January 2000, and a recent poll sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that two-fifths of households with kids between the ages of 2 and 17 have bought TVs since then. Yet only 17 percent of the parents in those homes said they'd ever used their V-chips.

At the same time, more than four-fifths of the parents said they were "a great deal" or "somewhat" concerned that their children were being exposed to too much sex and violence on TV. And 61 percent of the parents with older TV sets said they, unlike the parents who already have access to this wonderful technology, would surely use a V-chip if only they had one.

What gives? Vicky Rideout, who oversees the Kaiser Family Foundation's entertainment research, conceded that "the V-chip really isn't a factor today." It will never be widely used, she said, "unless there's a sea change in public education."

But the V-chip has received wide publicity, and anyone who was seriously concerned about the baneful influence of television would have to know that it was coming down the pike. True, in the Kaiser poll half of the parents with new TVs said they didn't realize they had V-chips. Yet it hardly seems unreasonable to expect parents who are worried about TV's impact on their kids to take the trouble of reading the user's manual.

In any case, only 36 percent of the parents who knew they had a TV with a V-chip had ever taken advantage of it. Half of them said they didn't need it because an adult was usually around to supervise what the kids were watching, and a quarter said they trusted their kids to make their own viewing choices.

Those are both defensible positions, but they're inconsistent with the strong public support for the V-chip expressed in polls. Indeed, given the level of concern about television's deleterious effects, it's a bit of a puzzle why more parents have not bought TVs with V-chips. What's a few hundred bucks when your child's moral health is at stake?

A cheaper approach, for parents who don't want to directly oversee their children's viewing habits, is to get rid of the TV, or reserve it for adults. The fact that virtually no one seriously considers those possibilities suggests that parents are not quite as worried about TV as they claim to be. So does the continued success of violent and salacious programming, which would not be possible without the eyeballs of many ostensibly outraged parents.

To say that you're concerned about all the sex and violence on TV is a cost-free way of asserting your moral rectitude, so it's not surprising that large majorities consistently do so. But keeping an eye on your kids, banishing TV from your home, and even programming your V-chip all involve time, effort, and the possibility of conflict. These options will always be less popular than paying lip service to propriety in a survey.

It's not surprising that people give pollsters responses they think will reflect well on them. The disturbing thing–especially when nearly half of parents say they favor direct government censorship of TV programming–is that these answers become the basis for legislation.

Just the other day, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) was holding hearings designed to show the need for a "universal ratings system" that would apply uniform standards to all entertainment media. Apparently, surveys show it's what the people want.