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May 2, 2007
Column #1,340
Advance for May 5, 2007
Congress Should Limit Violent TV
by Mike McManus

WASHINGTON - The Federal Communications Commission issued a report last week which said "Research indicates exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children...Given this finding, the FCC recommends that action should be taken to address violent programming."

An AP Poll reports 70 percent of Americans believe there is too much violence on television. Yet the average household has TV on for more than eight hours a day. And a third to two-thirds of children, depending on their age, have a set in their bedroom.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and national psychological and psychiatric groups agree on four types of harm of violence to children:

1. Viewing violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life.

2. Children exposed to violent programming at a young age have a greater tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life than children who are not.

3. Children exposed to violence are more likely to assume that acts of violence are acceptable behavior.

4. Viewing violence increases fear of becoming a victim of violence, with a resultant increase in self-protection behaviors and mistrust of others.

Predictably, TV networks and publishers disagree, arguing that there is no proof that violence in media causes actual violence.  However, studies of the brain with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), show that adolescents exposed to high levels of violent media actually have "reduced levels of cognitive brain function" the FCC reported.

There are two political problems in attempting to limit violence on TV.  First, it is difficult to define the violence that is harmful. One definition of excess violence is "the depiction of acts of violence in such a graphic and/or bloody manner as to exceed common limits of custom and candor, or in such a manner that is apparent that the predominant appeal of the material is portrayal of violence for violence's sake."  A federal court called that "void for vagueness."

The second problem is that courts have found that the First Amendment protects violent speech and depictions of violence. However, the government may regulate it if its harm is called "substantial" and the restriction is "narrowly tailored."

The FCC notes that the Supreme Court took a similar stand on "indecency" which upheld the FCC's authority to regulate the broadcast of indecent material. The FCC passed a rule that "channeled" indecent material to the hours between 10 pm and 6 am, blocking it during "prime time" evening hours when children are watching. In the past year, heavy fines have been imposed for the first time on networks for permitting nudity or use of profanity between 7 and 10 pm.

Since the FCC study was undertaken at the request of Congress, it recommends that Congress consider defining excessive violence and impose a similar channeling restriction on it, because the government has a "compelling interest in protecting children." Like indecency, violent programming is of "slight social value" and no real threat to genuine freedom of speech or press.

Congress already took one step to protect children from violent or sexually explicit material.  Since 2000 all TV sets sold in America had to have a "V-chip" installed which theoretically enables parents to block certain programming that was too violent or sexual. However, of 280 million sets in U.S. households, less than half have the V-chip, and most parents are unaware of it or how to use it. A poll revealed only 12 percent do so.

Also, the V-chip depends on the honesty of broadcasters in informing viewers whether a particular program is excessively violent or sexual.  A Parents Television Council study found that four out of five programs with offensive material were not properly labeled. 

Therefore, a new initiative is needed.  In addition to channeling, another option suggested by the FCC is that consumers be allowed to choose which cable channels they would like to purchase.  In Hong Kong, this "a la carte" approach allows consumers to watch sports, movies, news, children's programming and receive 15 free channels plus ESPN, HBO, CNN Headline News, National Geographic and Discovery for only $27.50 monthly.  The same channels in Washington costs $82.00

I am reminded of Paul's admonition to the Phillippians, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy or praise, think about these things."

New law is needed to protect children and put their minds on higher things.

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