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Remarks of Commissioner Gloria Tristani
Emory University

March 2, 2000


Next month will mark the one-year anniversary of the killings at Columbine. I often ask myself why that particular tragedy continues to have such a hold on the American psyche. After all, as many children are killed every day by gun violence in this country as were killed at Columbine. The answer, I think, is twofold. First, Columbine, a white, suburban school, shattered any sense of security among white, suburban America that "it can't happen here." Second, the tragedy made us ask what's happening to our children. That led to a lot of finger-pointing. The parents were to blame. The easy availability of guns was to blame. And, of course, the media was to blame for flooding our children with violent images and desensitizing them to the consequences of violence. We're going through a similar finger-pointing in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Michigan on Tuesday.

My role today is to talk about the government response to media violence, and how we respond to parents who are pleading for some way to protect their children from harmful influences in the media. Of course, when it comes to government efforts to address media violence, the First Amendment is always an important consideration, as I hope will become clear. I'd like to talk first about the V-Chip, and then discuss a few other efforts that are underway on Capitol Hill and in the Administration.


The videotape we just saw was a good introduction to the V-Chip and how it works with the TV ratings system. Let me give a little historical context so you can see how the V-Chip came to be. The V-Chip statute was enacted as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In its findings, Congress recognized that children watch a lot of TV and that a lot of what children watch is violent. Congress found that there is a "compelling governmental interest" (language designed to help defeat any First Amendment legal challenge) in giving parents a way to shield their children from programming that they consider objectionable.

In the V-Chip statute, Congress directed the FCC to require that virtually all new television sets contain a V-Chip that can be programmed to block certain shows. This part of the statute is about hardware and not content, so Congress clearly felt that it had more leeway in mandating that TV sets include the physical V-Chip device. But, standing alone, the V-Chip can't block anything. It can only block shows if they come encoded on the Vertical Blanking Interval with a rating that allows the V-Chip to distinguish the objectionable shows from the unobjectionable ones. So Congress recognized that a ratings system was needed that would tell the V-Chip what the content was of a particular show.

Given the First Amendment, Congress handled the ratings system differently than it handled the V-Chip. Instead of mandating a ratings system, Congress gave the TV industry a year to come up with its own ratings system that would work with the V-Chip. If the industry failed to do so, the FCC was directed to convene an advisory group to come up with its own ratings system. Interestingly, though, Congress did not require the TV industry to actually use the FCC's ratings system - it only required that if a programmer chose to rate its programming, that it be required to transmit those ratings to parents.

Of course, the industry did develop its own voluntary ratings system, so the FCC never had to develop its own system.

The voluntary industry system has evolved over time. When it was first proposed, it looked much like the movie ratings system, based solely on age-based categories, like TV-PG. Family and child advocacy groups objected to that approach, arguing that parents not only want to know that a program may not be suitable for children under a certain age because it may contain violence, sex or coarse language, but that parents want to know which of those the show actually does contain. In other words, they argued that parents want to know the content of the program that led to the rating.

After a series of discussions, the industry agreed to revise its ratings system. To their existing ratings system, the industry added content indicators -- "S" for sex, "V" for violence, "L" for language and "D" for suggestive dialogue. So now, for example, a show could be rated TV-PG-V, which means that it was rated PG because of its violent content. The industry also added a content label to programming designed especially for children -- "FV" for fantasy violence.

Even though the ratings system is a voluntary industry effort, some still insist that the ratings and the V-chip somehow amount to government censorship. I disagree. The V-chip does not empower the government to censor speech; it empowers parents to decide for themselves what programs their children should see. The V-chip reflects the modern reality that parents cannot always monitor what their children watch on TV. Nowadays there aren't just three channels to monitor, there are dozens. No parent can possibly know what's on all of them all of the time. And in this age of single parent families and families in which both parents must work to make ends meet, it just isn't possible for parents to always be at home to monitor their children's television viewing. If the V-chip is unconstitutional, so is a remote-control device - and so, too, are parents who control what their children watch by turning off the television or restricting what they watch. I'm a strong believer in free speech. But I'm also a strong believer in the health and well-being of our children. I do not believe that these goals are mutually exclusive.

That's not to say that government doesn't have a proper role in ensuring the V-Chip's success. As head of the FCC's V-Chip Task Force, I had three goals for the past year. Number one, make sure that the V-Chips are in the sets according to schedule. That goal has been accomplished - as of last January 1, all new sets with screens 13" or greater have a V-Chip. Number two, make sure that the ratings information is actually being encoded and transmitted so that the V-Chip has something to read. This has proven a little more difficult. Last year, we were finding that while many programmers had focused on rating their shows - and even included the little icon in the corner of the screen - they hadn't focused on encoding the information that was necessary for the V-Chip to work. A lot of progress has been made over the past year. As of today, almost all the major broadcast and cable networks are encoding, as are all major syndicators. I have copies of our latest survey, for those who are interested, which shows the networks that are currently encoding and those that have not yet begun.

And three, the Task Force is working to educate parents about how the V-Chip can be used to guide their children's TV viewing. We've been working with retailers and manufacturers to provide point-of-sale information and instruction on using the V-Chip. I'm pleased to report that Circuit City, in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Odyssey network, is printing 700,000 V-Chip informational brochures for distribution in Circuit City stores. I'm also pleased that several industry groups, including the top four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) have all produced public service announcements to inform parents about the V-Chip.

But this is a long process, and we face some tough hurdles in getting the word out to parents. One hurdle is follow-through. For instance, while the top four networks all have produced PSAs, the real question is how often the PSAs have run. The latest tracking data I've seen from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that in February, ABC did not run its PSA at all. NBC ran its PSA only once in February, at the network level, and not at all at the affiliate level. In January, NBC did not run its PSA at all at either level. In contrast, CBS ran its PSA 30 times in February at the network level.

Here's another hurdle we face - now that the V-Chip is standard-issue in all new sets, I'm not sure that manufacturers and retailers have much commercial incentive to use the V-Chip as a selling point. Yet another difficult hurdle in getting the word out to parents is newspaper TV listings. Many papers aren't carrying the ratings information in their listings, so parents don't see them and don't become familiar with them. I've heard papers say they don't run the ratings because no one is asking for them. Which, of course, begs the question, because how can parents ask for something when they don't know about it? So it's going to be a slow, gradual process. We need to be patient and not listen to the naysayers who are ready to declare defeat at the outset.

Violence Safe-Harbor Bill

Beyond the V-Chip, there are a couple of other ideas percolating on Capitol Hill that deal with media violence. One is a violence "safe harbor" bill, of which Senator Fritz Hollings is the chief sponsor. The bill basically would prohibit the airing of any violent programming when children are reasonably likely to comprise a substantial portion of the audience. It would be similar to the FCC rules on indecency, which says if you show indecent material after 10 p.m., you're in a "safe harbor." In other countries, the BBC in Britain and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council have made 9 p.m. the "watershed" point after which violence unsuitable for children can be aired. At the time the violence "safe harbor" bill was introduced, Senator Hollings argued that the V-Chip was "totally ineffective" and would continue to be "inadequate for years to come." The bill did not advance very far last session, amidst arguments that the V-Chip and TV ratings system should be given a chance to work.

Voluntary Code of Conduct

Another effort I wanted to note is the movement to get the industry to adopt a voluntary code of conduct. Several Senators, including John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, Sam Brownback, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Kent Conrad have signed onto an appeal to Hollywood to voluntarily commit to things like: an overall reduction in the level of entertainment violence; a revival of the "family hour" and a ban on the targeting of adult-oriented entertainment to young people.


Speaking of marketing, that brings me to the final government effort I wanted to mention - a study being conducted by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice on the marketing of violence to young people in movies, video games and recordings. The study is not looking at content, but at industry self-regulation and marketing practices to answer a question put by President Clinton: are products that are intended for adults being advertised or promoted to audiences composed primarily of young people? In other words, is the entertainment industry complying with its own standards regarding who should have access to its products, or can more be done? The study got underway last June, and I understand that it may be released late this summer.

The marketing of violence to children concerns me greatly. One particular concern I have is TV wrestling, which is wildly popular with teens and younger children. And when you look at the marketing of wrestling products, it's not hard to see why. Toy companies, for instance, now make "action figures" (which is what they call "dolls" for boys) based on all the TV wrestling stars. The Steve "Stone Cold" Austin action figure comes with his own metal folding chair for hitting opponents over the head. The Rock comes with a trash can and lid to use as weapons. And the Undertaker comes with his own shovel to swing at opponents and send them "to an early grave." These dolls are marketed to children 4 years of age and up.

One has to wonder what these toy companies are thinking. It's not like the metal chair permits the child to use his or her imagination. Its sole purpose is to permit a child to imitate TV wrestlers by hitting another action figure over the head. As one educator put it, "If kids are saturated with media violence and they're given toys that are linked to that violence, then that's going to dictate their play."

This danger was tragically demonstrated by an event in Dallas, Texas last May. A 7-year-old boy killed his 3-year-old brother by copying a wrestling move he saw on TV. According to the police, the older boy slammed his little brother to the floor with a running straight-armed punch to the neck, a move called a "clothesline" in the wrestling world. Asked to show what he had done, the boy ran at a life-size doll from about ten feet away. As he got close to the doll, he stuck out his arm at shoulder-height and struck the doll in the neck, knocking it backwards. The 3-year-old boy died from brain swelling caused by his head striking the carpeted concrete floor. The 7-year-old was devastated, crying to the police that he didn't mean to hurt his brother.

I've heard from many parents - some with children as young as 3 - worried about the levels of sex and violence on TV wrestling. I can't blame them. I look at the huge ratings for wrestling. I look at the fact that it often airs early in prime time, when lots of children are watching. I look at the extreme levels of violence that rarely show any real consequences (the wrestlers are always back the next week, ready for more punishment). And then I look at the marketing to young children. It's a troubling combination.

In summary, let me say that all of these efforts - from the V-Chip to the "safe harbor" approach to the voluntary code of conduct to the marketing study - are attempts to balance our concern about the negative effects of media violence on our children, and our respect for the First Amendment.

I'd like to leave you with something from this morning's New York Times and Washington Post regarding the six year-old boy who shot and killed six year-old Kayla Rolland. The prosecutor was discussing how the little boy was incapable of forming an intent to shoot his classmate: "Especially after the detectives say that he has not appreciated what has happened, that he takes this as, well, this is something that happens like on television."