Friday, January 20, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Do Parents Have the Tools to Control TV Content?

The Senate Commerce Committee held yet another hearing yesterday about "cleaning up" content on broadcast TV, cable & satellite TV, and the Internet too. One Senator after another, as well as some of the typical media critics who get called to testify at these things, made the claim that parents are helpless in the face of all the media that bombards their kids these days. But what's so troubling about such calls for increased media regulation / censorship in the name of "protecting children" is that it ignores the fact that parents have many constructive alternatives to censorship at their disposal.

Let's start with some basics.

First, parents can place limits on the overall number of viewing or listening hours for various media. They can also limit child viewing (and websurfing) to a single TV (or computer) in a room where a parent can always have an eye on the screen, or be listening in. Importantly, they can also get TV's out of their kids' bedrooms. When parents bring media devices into the home, and even let their children have TV sets in their bedrooms, then they should not claim they are powerless to stop what their children see. According to a March 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report entitled Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, 68 percent of 8-18 year-olds have televisions in their bedrooms. Surveys taken from 1996-2000 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center offered similar findings, with between 55-60 percent of 12-17 year-olds having televisions in their bedroom. Any way you cut it, a lot of kids have TVs in their bedrooms. Presumably, they didn't put them there themselves. Their parents must have had some say over the matter or at least provided the money necessary to purchase the sets.

Parents can also tap the many new screening and filtering technologies at their disposal to limit their children's access to certain content. In striking down the Communications Decency Act's effort to regulate underage access to pornography, the Court argued in Reno v. ACLU that a law that places a "burden on adult speech is unacceptable if less restrictive alternatives would be at least as effective in achieving" the same goal.

Many "less restrictive alternatives" are available to parents today to help shield their children's eyes and ears from content they might find objectionable. In addition to the "V-Chip" capabilities integrated into all televisions today, which give parents to ability to screen content by ratings, cable and satellite set-top boxes offer locking functions for individual channels so that kids can't watch without a password. 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. Parents can also request that cable companies block specific channels entirely.

VCR, DVD players, personal video recorders (PVRs), and home computers also give parents to ability to accumulate libraries of preferred content for their children. If certain parents believed that their children should only be raised on reruns of "The Lone Ranger" and "Leave it to Beaver," then these new media technologies can make it happen. To use a personal example: My wife and I have developed a strategy of designating a specific television in our house for almost all our children's media consumption and then using a PVR to amass a large library of programming we believe is educational, enriching and appropriate for them. Dozens of programs can be cataloged and achieved in this fashion and then supplemented with DVDs and computer software. Needless to say, such content tailoring was not an option for families in the past.

Even mobile content can be filtered or controlled using innovative new technologies. Firefly Mobile, for example, is already marketing a tiny, voice-only phone for kids with just 5 buttons on it. Two of the buttons have small icons symbolizing mom and dad, allowing the child to call them directly via pre-programmed numbers. It comes in a number of colors and contains a variety of accessories geared toward kids. But the important thing here is that it gives parents a great deal of control over what their kids can access on their cell phones. The Walt Disney Co. and Sprint Corp. also recently announced that they would soon start marketing a wireless phone service tailored to youngsters. Another such phone called the TicTalk is being marketed by wireless company Enfora and the educational toy maker LeapFrog Enterprises.

Parents can also pressure media providers and programmers directly through public campaigns, or indirectly through advertisers. Groups like the Parents Television Council, Morality in Media, and the National Institute on Media and the Family can play a constructive role in influencing content decisions through the pressure they can collectively bring to bear on media providers. Morality in Media's website, for example, outlines several strategies parents can use to influence advertisers, programming executives and cable operators before resorting to censorship. Likewise, the National Institute on Media and the Family's "MediaWise" website offers occasional columns and newsletters for parents that include information they can use to make more informed judgments about the content their children consume. In particular, the Institute's website offers a free "KidsScore" system that rates thousands of movies, TV shows, video games. All content is alphabetized and easy to search.

Meanwhile, industry-led groups and other organizations have developed new parental empowerment tools and websites to help families learn more about media content, parental controls, and ratings systems:

* "TV Watch," a collation of 27 prominent individuals and organizations representing more than 4 million Americans, sponsors initiatives such as the "1-2-3 Safe TV" tool kit for parents. The group circulates materials that provide parents easy-to-understand primers on how to safeguard their children against objectionable content. The effort was spearheaded by media operators such as Viacom, News Corp. and NBC-Universal but also includes groups as diverse as the American Conservative Union, the Black Filmmakers Foundation, Center for Creative Voices in Media, The Creative Coalition, the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council (MMTC) and the US Chamber of Commerce.

* The "Pause-Parent-Play" coalition offers a wonderful compendium of websites and services that parents can use to learn more about the media there children might want to see, hear or play. The effort is sponsored by an amazingly diverse coalition of companies and associations, including: WalMart, the Girl Scouts, YMCA, Microsoft, Comcast, Time Warner, News Corp., the Electronic Software Association, Viacom, NBC-Universal, and the MPAA and RIAA. The coalition's website features numerous links answering questions about how TV ratings and screening tools work (like the V-Chip and cable / satellite set-top boxes). These TV screening and filtering tools seem to be the source of some confusion for some parents, but the links provided on the Pause-Parent-Play website help parents better understand how to use these technologies. There's also a "Get the Facts" section on the site that offers detailed explanations of how many of the current ratings systems work.

* The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the cable industry's trade association, sponsors a $250 million public service campaign called "Cable Puts You in Control." As part of the effort, the industry airs numerous educational ads and distributes materials to subscribers. These materials are also made available to consumers via in-store displays as retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City. The effort also includes an education website: This site includes a variety of educational links and videos showing parents how to block access to certain channels or programs that they might find objectionable.

* In November 2005, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), the wireless industry's trade association, unveiled new "Wireless Content Guidelines" that industry members would follow "to proactively provide tools and controls to manage wireless content offered by the carriers or available via Internet-enabled wireless devices." Under the guidelines, wireless carriers pledged not to offer any adult-oriented content until they have created controls to allow parents to restrict access. The guidelines propose the creation of a Content Classification Standard, which will divide mobile content into two categories: "Generally Accessible Carrier Content" and "Restricted Carrier Content." Ratings will then be developed using familiar categories and criteria employed by existing movie, television, music and games rating systems and then tools will be developed that will "ensure carrier-offered content either excludes or requires parent or guardian permission to access any material inappropriate for subscribers under 18." Under the second phase of the plan, wireless carriers will implement Internet Content Access Control technologies to let consumers block access to the Internet entirely or block access to specific websites that they might find inappropriate.

* Finally, at yesterday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Jack Valenti, the former CEO of the MPAA, announced that all media companies "who make and dispatch visual programming" were launching a joint 18-month marketing campaign "to inform and persuade the American people that they have the power" to control the content that appears on their television screens.

This unprecedented $250-$300 million campaign includes participation from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA); the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB); the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA); the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA); Viacom; Time Warner; television broadcast networks ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC Universal; and satellite TV providers DirecTV and EchoStar's Dish Network. The Ad Council and various advertising agencies will assist the effort to help craft "simple messages" that would then be broadcast and cablecast by all these media providers over at least an 18-month period.

In sum, the combination of the V-Chip, various ratings systems, set-top box parental controls, new Internet and mobile media filtering / screening technologies, and other technological tools like personal video recorders, mean that parents now have multiple layers of technological protection at their disposal. And these industry-led educational efforts prove that the media operators are taking steps to help parents make content determinations on their own.

So, next time your hear the media critics and censorship proponents say that parents do not have the tools at their disposal to make informed decisions about what their children watch on television, give them this list! If all this isn't good enough for them, then it just proves that what they are really out to do it ban all the content they don't like from TV altogether. In a free society, however, citizens should be given the right to make such choices on their own. And government should not be called in to assume the role of surrogate parent and make these choices for us. Luckily, the new technologies and services mentioned above make that job easier for parents.

Finally, and perhaps most sensibly, parents can always sit down with their children, watch controversial and provocative programming with them, and talk to them about what they are seeing or hearing. For those parents willing to accept the reality that children will be confronted with many troubling or sensitive topics from peers at school, or from other sources outside their control, this option makes a great deal of sense. Most parents already do this, of course. A recent survey of media usage by children under 6 years of age found that 69 percent of parents were in the room when children were watching TV. At the end of the day, there is simply no substitute for talking to children in an open, loving and understanding fashion about the realities of this world, including the more distasteful bits.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:22 AM | Free Speech