In late April the Federal Communications Commission issued a report on "violent television programming and its impact on children" that calls not just for expanding the government's oversight of broadcast TV but extending content regulation to cable and satellite channels. The FCC also recommended that some shows be banned from time slots when children might be watching and that cable operators be forced to offer "a la carte" service in which subscribers would pick and choose among individual channels.
The report rests on the demonstrably false premise that violence on TV breeds violence in reality, and it gives short shrift to the vast increase in child-friendly programming and parent-empowering viewing tools. The result is a document as cartoonish and absurd as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (whom the FCC decries as small-screen hooligans).
"America is hooked on violence," laments Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein. "Particularly in light of the spasm of unconscionable violence at Virginia Tech," he says, "but just as importantly in light of the excessive violent crime that daily afflicts our nation, there is a basis for appropriate federal action to curb violence in the media." Yet the report itself cites a 2001 U.S. surgeon general's report that concluded "many questions remain regarding the short- and long-term effects of media violence, especially on violent behavior."
More to the point, if Adelstein is right that fantasy violence translates readily into real-world violence, that effect should be reflected in crime statistics. There seems little question that depictions of violence in popular culture, including TV, movies, music, and video games, have become more frequent and more graphic during the last decade or so. Yet juvenile violent crime arrests have dropped steadily since 1994, falling "to a level not seen since at least the 1970s," according to the U.S. Justice Department. A similar trend can be seen among adults.
But the FCC commissioners speak less as social scientists than as parents. "I am deeply concerned about the negative effects violent programming appears to have on our children," writes Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. "Many of us, as parents, have witnessed our children acting out a fighting scene from an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…or been awakened by a frightened child climbing into bed after having a nightmare because of something they saw on television." The ultimate goal of the report, Tate says, is to change "the media landscape outside our homes" (emphasis hers) and to increase "the amount of family-friendly, uplifting and nonviolent programming being produced."
It's safe to say that when a quartet of do-good, pizza-chomping cartoon reptiles has become a predicate for federal regulation, American governance has gone seriously off the rails. And if the FCC is in the business of banning the stuff of children's nightmares, look for the agency to go after circus clowns any day now.
In recent years, cable TV has become jam-packed with more uplift than a Cross Your Heart bra: Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, Disney Kids, Sprout, Noggin, and other outlets devote most or all of their hours to kid-friendly culture. At the same time, parents have unprecedented control over the tube. All new TV sets come equipped with a government-mandated V-chip, which allows parents to block shows based on violence, language, or sexual content ratings; the typical cable box allows something similar. And all TVs come with an on/off switch. (A couple years ago, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin—perhaps channeling TV's laziest father, Homer Simpson—observed: "You can always turn the television off and, of course, block the channels you don't want.…But why should you have to?")
The FCC notes all this but assumes the low usage rates for such tools—only about 12 percent of parents report using the V-chip—mean parents' wishes are being thwarted. Maybe. Or maybe parents just aren't as alarmed as the FCC thinks they should be.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason.