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Tuesday, April 5, 2005

If You Mandate It, They Will Come... Maybe
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Legislators and congressional staff were doing lot of huffing and puffing about the cable industry "cleaning up its act" at the NCTA trade show out in San Fran this week. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was once again leading the crusade for expanding content controls to subscription-based media like cable and satellite TV. Some, like Stevens, favor direct censorship of cable and satellite along the lines of what we already apply to broadcasters. Others favor mandating (or at least strongly encouraging) more parental screening / filtering technologies.

On this latter point, the comment coming out of the event that I found most interesting was from Colin Crowell, an aide to Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). Crowell argued that "If the industry promoted these parental controls in the same way it promoted a new show, you'd have a consumer acceptance of those technological tools." In other words, if you mandate it (more parental empowerment tools), they will come (and use them to filter / screen content). Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

Let me first just say that I'm happy Mr. Crowell is suggesting private screening / filtering over government censorship. But like many others, he is assuming that the industry is either (a) not developing enough of these tools, or (b) not doing enough to promote the existence of the tools they have already developed. Both assumptions are false.

Parents have more technological tools at their disposal than ever to help filter what their children can see and hear. Parental controls are usually just one button-click away on cable and satellite remote controls. Every digital set-top box includes parental screening capabilities with password protection. This comes on top of the V-Chip capabilities already built into all television sets. Parents can also request that cable companies block specific channels entirely. In addition, the increasing popularity of personal video recorders (PVRs), like Tivos, allow parents to create a personal library of programming tailored to their family's tastes or interests. Thus, parents have multiple technological lines of defense at their disposal in addition to any other rules they set up for media use in the home, such as limits on when kids can watch TV or what they can watch.

Moreover, it cannot seriously be claimed that the cable industry has failed to undertake consumer education efforts. Many years ago, the NCTA launched a massive consumer education / parental empowerment effort called "Cable Puts You In Control." This website, "Control Your TV.com," highlights all the efforts the industry has undertaken to help parents. The site contains a toolkit that parents can download to help them learn about how to take advantage of all the filtering / screening tools at their disposal. These toolkits are also circulated at numerous events and meetings in collaboration with the National PTA. And the industry runs many ads and public service announcements to constantly remind parents that these tools exist.

So, is all this good enough for policymakers? Is it enough to head-off cable industry censorship efforts? Probably not, for one simple reason: For whatever reason, parents just refuse to take the time or make the effort to use these tools.

Consider the V-Chip. A 2001 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that only 7 percent of all parents use the V-Chip to screen programming. Other studies or surveys typically confirm that parents generally don't take advantage of other screening / filtering tools at their disposal.

The phrase "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" comes to mind here. In sum, no matter how many technological tools the industry makes available for parents, it does not mean they will use them and there is no way to force them to use them. But that fact should not then be used as an excuse for the government to step in and censor "indecent" or "excessively violent" programming on cable or satellite television.

This is about parental responsibility. And the parental responsibility argument certainly has to count for something when the media outlets in question are subscription-based in character and cost a considerable amount of money to bring into the home. Cable television, for example, requires a monthly subscription that averages almost $40 per month for expanded basic service. Satellite TV costs a bit more. That means that over the course of a year, consumers spend almost $500 (probably much more since most homes get more than just "basic" tier services) to bring these video services into the home.

Once parents take the effort to subscribe to these services and bring them into the home, it does not absolve them of their responsibility to monitor how their children use them. After all, many different goods or services that parents bring into the home can pose dangers to children, but that doesn't mean the government should act in loco parentis and regulate those goods to a level that is only fit for children. For example, parents don't bring cars, power tools, or chemicals home and then expect the government to assume responsibility from there. But that's essentially the logic that some lawmakers are using to justify regulation of subscription-based media in the name of protecting children.

This is not to suggest that all parents are lazy (although some certainly can be at times). Perhaps some feel they are just too busy to punch a few buttons on their controllers or set-top boxes and screen channels or shows. Perhaps some instead do what I do: set up rules for their children about what they can watch and when they can watch it. (I personally take the Tivo-everything-that-is-good approach and create a personal library of high-quality content for my kids. I must have three dozen "Blue's Clues" episodes on my Tivo alone!) And perhaps other parents do the most important thing of all: talk to their kids in an open, understanding and loving fashion about what they see and hear on TV today.

No doubt, being a good parent isn't an easy job in our modern world of media abundance. But let's not use that at as an excuse to call in the government to censor cable and satellite TV just because parenting is difficult. We have the tools at our disposal to help us and we have always had the ability to set up rules in our own home about media usage.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 9:55 AM | Free Speech

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