Wordperfect Version

Remarks by
Gloria Tristani
Federal Communications Commission
to the
Puerto Rican Congress on Television Violence
San Juan, PR
February 11, 1998


Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction and for the honor of speaking before this prestigious group.

I am pleased to address the issue of children and violence in the media. Children are our most precious resource, but all too often their voices aren't heard when public issues are discussed. It may be because children have no vote, no Washington lobbyists, no money to donate to their favorite candidate. It is up to us, each of us, to speak for them, to protect them and to honor them. So, on behalf of the children of this great country, I am pleased to be here today.

I would like to address two questions this morning. First, how does TV, and especially violence on TV, affect our children? Second, what can we do about it?

There isn't much doubt that TV has an impact on children. 98% of American homes own a TV set -- more than the percentage of homes that own a telephone. The average child watches about 25 hours of television a week -- more time each year watching TV than he or she spends in the classroom.

And, much of what kids are watching on TV is violent. By the time they complete elementary school, children in the United States have witnessed about 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence. And while prime-time TV contains about 5 violent acts per hour -- bad enough -- there are over 20 violent acts per hour on children's programming. Each week, television programming contains about 800 violent scenes that qualify as high risk for younger children.

So children watch a lot of TV, and a lot of what they watch is violent. Is this a serious problem? Absolutely. Over 1,000 studies indicate that there is a link between TV violence and children's aggressive attitudes and anti-social behavior. These studies were conducted by groups like the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the United States Surgeon General and the National Institute of Mental Health. As one researcher put it: "The scientific debate is over." Television violence teaches aggressive and anti-social behavior to children.

In addition, there are other, less obvious, impacts of TV violence on children. Studies have found that exposure to TV violence is linked to an increase in criminal activity, increased desensitization to violence and an increase in indifference to victims. Violence on television can also make children more afraid of the world. One study reported that violence on TV can cause children to show "an exaggerated fear of being attacked by a violent assailant." One researcher refers to this as the "mean and scary world syndrome." Finally, TV violence affects different children differently. Very young children, for instance, have a hard time connecting punishment which may occur later in a program with violence that occurred earlier. Thus, violent acts must be punished and must be punished quickly if a young child is to learn that violence is punished and not rewarded.

Whose responsibility is it to protect children from television violence?

First and most clearly, it is the obligation of the parents to protect their children from television programming that they believe is inappropriate. Research indicates that when parents take an active role in the selection of television programs, children select different programs to watch.

Second, it is the obligation of the entertainment industry to acknowledge the importance of reducing the level of violence on programs that children are watching. The industry could take a huge step forward by acknowledging this responsibility and finding ways to reduce the amount of harmful violent images on these programs.

Third, it is the responsibility of society. It is up to each of us to convey the message to the entertainment industry, to our children, and to each other that harmful violence in programs that children watch will not be tolerated. We would not knowingly let someone into our homes who could harm our children. Then why, as a society, should we allow our children to be exposed to harmful violence on TV? Parents need the tools to protect their children.

There are some steps that the government can take. On the one hand, we can give parents the tools to protect their children from material that they believe is inappropriate. That's the V-chip, which I'll discuss in a minute. On the other hand, we can help make sure that parents have a good alternative to violent programming, so that we're not just telling our children what not to watch. That's where our rules on the educational television programming come in.

First, the V-chip. As many of you know, Congress enacted V-chip legislation as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. For those of you who may not be familiar with the V-chip law, let me briefly explain how it works and then give you a status report.

The V-chip is not a substitute for parents. It is a tool for parents. 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 isn't possible for parents to always be at home to monitor their children's television viewing. The V-chip will allow parents to block violent, sexual or other programming that they believe is harmful to their children. When the parents leave for work, or go out for the evening and leave the children with a babysitter, they will be able to punch a couple of buttons and the V-chip will block out programming that they do not wish their children to see.

How will the V-chip permit parents to block shows? Well, along with requiring V-chip blocking technology in new sets, Congress also required that program ratings be developed, so that the V-chip would be able to tell what kind of programming was being shown. The ratings will be sent by the TV station or cable operator over what's called the "vertical blanking interval." I'm sure all of you know the horizontal line on your sets that sometimes needs to be adjusted. That's not just there to annoy you. That line can carry a lot of valuable information, like closed captioning for the hearing impaired. It will also carry the TV ratings system when it's ultimately in place. The V-chip will be able to read those signals and will block the show if it has been programmed to do so.

I believe that this kind of tool is fully consistent with the First Amendment. By using the V-chip, parents can protect their children from offensive speech. As former FCC Chairman Newton Minow said, 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 limiting television viewing time. 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.

Congress gave the TV industry the first chance to develop a voluntary ratings system and directed the FCC to determine whether the industry's voluntary system satisfied the goals of the statute. If the industry system was found unacceptable, then the FCC was to establish an advisory committee and come up with a ratings system of its own.

Now, as many of you know, about a year ago the industry (the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association and the Motion Picture Association of America) submitted a voluntary ratings system for FCC approval. In many ways, the system was similar to the movies ratings system -- from "TV-G" for general audiences to "TV-MA" for mature audiences only. Programming specifically designed for children had its own ratings -- "TV-Y" for programs suitable for all children and "TV-Y7" for programs designed for children 7 and above. The industry proposed that the ratings would be applied to all programs except news, sports and unedited movies on premium cable channels. The rating would generally be applied by a program's producer or distributor, although a local station would retain the right to substitute a rating it deemed appropriate for its particular community. The industry began displaying its ratings as small icons in the upper left-hand corner of the screen for the first 15 seconds of each show -- perhaps you've seen them. The industry also established an Oversight Monitoring Board to ensure that the ratings were applied accurately and consistently.

After the industry submitted its proposal, the Commission received literally thousands of comments, letters and e-mails from different groups and individuals, like the PTA, the American Medical Association and the Children's Defense Fund. Most of the comments we received objected to the industry's proposed ratings system. They generally argued that parents needed more information than the industry system provided. They argued that parents not only want to know that a program may not be suitable for kids under 14 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 discussions with family and child advocacy groups last summer, the industry agreed to revise its ratings system. To their existing ratings system 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 kids' programming -- "FV" for fantasy violence. The industry also agreed to add five members of the advocacy community to the Oversight Monitoring Board.

Last September, the industry submitted its revised ratings system to the FCC. The FCC asked for additional public comments on the revised proposal. I can't comment on whether we will find the revised system to be "acceptable." But I can tell you that I believe that we'll be issuing a decision on that question in the coming weeks.

At the same time, I hope we'll be issuing another Order addressing some technical issues relating to the V-chip itself. That item will address such issues as how many ratings systems will the V-chip be required to read? Just the FCC-accepted system? What if other organizations wanted to develop their own ratings systems? Should the V-chip be designed to handle those as well or would that be too confusing to parents? The item will also be addressing when manufacturers must begin producing TV sets containing the V-chip. Eventually, all TV sets with screens 13" or larger must be equipped with the V-chip.

I fully hope and expect the Commission will act on both of these items in the near future. The sooner we have a ratings system and the sooner we establish the technical aspects of the V-chip, the sooner parents will have this important tool in their hands.

Now, as I've said, in addition to letting parents protect their kids from programming they don't want them to see, the FCC has also developed rules to encourage the development of programming that parents actually do want their kids to see. These rules are based on the Children's Television Act of 1990. The Children's Television Act recognized that children are a special audience and required broadcasters to provide educational and informational programming to meet their needs. It also directed the FCC to look at station compliance with the Children's Television Act as part of the license renewal process. Therefore, the amount of programming intended to educate children is part of our application of the public interest standard to renew broadcast licenses.

In the past, the law's requirements may not have been taken very seriously. Apparently some stations claimed that shows like "The Jetsons" were educational under the statute. One station described how "GI Joe" met the educational needs of children: "The Joes fight against an evil that has the capabilities of mass destruction of society. Issues of social consciousness and responsibility are show themes."

Recently, the FCC strengthened its rules implementing the Children's Television Act. Here's how the rules work. We have adopted a three-hour "processing guideline." That means that if the licensee is providing at least three hours of "core" educational programming, it can be assured that it is complying with the Children's Television Act and its application for license renewal can be approved at the staff level without being sent to the full Commission.

What qualifies as core programming for the 3-hour guideline? It must serve the educational and informational needs of children 16 and under. It must be aired between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. It must be a regularly scheduled weekly program. It must be at least 30 minutes long. And it must specify the educational objective and target audience in writing. If the TV station cannot meet the 3-hour guideline, it does not mean that their license will not be renewed. It simply means that their renewal application cannot be processed at the staff level and will be referred to the full Commission, where the station can demonstrate how its efforts meet the obligations set forth in the Children's Television Act.

These rules went into effect last September. The initial results are encouraging. It appears that all but a few stations are showing at least three hours of educational and informational programming -- and some are showing as much as nine hours.

Some people, however, seem to have already pronounced the rules a failure. Apparently some of the new educational shows didn't draw big audiences and were cancelled. I believe it is far too early to judge the success or failure of the rules. The rules have been in effect only a few months. The fact that some educational programs didn't survive doesn't mean that we should give up. Very few new shows for adults survive. I don't hear anyone saying that we should stop trying to program for adults just because certain shows were cancelled. Kids will watch educational TV if it's entertaining and interesting. It won't be easy. It'll take creativity. But I have no doubt that it can be done.

I challenge parents to take an interest in the programs their children are watching and talk about the content of the programs and commercials with their children. Parents should also contact their local stations. Let them know what you like and don't like about their programming.

I also challenge those in the entertainment industry -- substantially reduce the violent content in programs that children watch and voluntarily include in violent programming the very real consequences of violent acts and punishment for the perpetrator.

Finally, I challenge each of us to speak out publicly and say that violence in programs that children watch will no longer be tolerated. I also urge you to watch more TV with your children. Find and support the good programs. Fred Friendly once said that broadcasters make so much money doing their worst that they cannot afford to do their best. I hope that someday we can prove him wrong.

Thank you again for the honor of being invited to speak to you today.