Sunday, May 6, 2007

NO ONE disputes that violence is pervasive on television. No one suggests that's good for children. But as to what, if anything, to do about it -- well, hardly anyone agrees about that.

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing a major expansion of its authority over the airwaves. Not only is the commission asking Congress to give it the power to regulate violence, it also wants new authority over cable. Possible outcomes might include restricting violent programs to late evening and giving consumers the option to choose which cable channels come into their homes. The recommendations are part of a study done at the behest of Congress.

What's unclear is whether the recommendations would be effective, even if they were able to pass constitutional muster. The government's regulation on indecency has failed to prevent a coarsening of overall programming. Only the most flagrant of infractions are subject to restriction. Anyone who doubts that has only to switch on the television in the late afternoon.

Even more telling is the commission's failure to come up with a legally sustainable definition of excessive violence. Since adult access to violent programming is protected by the Constitution, the issue is what can be regulated to protect children. The commission's failure to identify what it can and would limit undercuts its argument for new FCC powers. It also underscores the fact that judgments about what is excessive are often subjective and, as such, should best be left to the determination of creator and consumer. There's no question that children should be shielded from violent images. Still, parents are the ones to make those decisions.

Technology has changed the nature of this debate. What is on television in prime time loses its meaning in an age of TiVo and YouTube. That's not to say that parents don't need help. Tools that can give parents the power to block unwanted programming have been underused. There needs to be more information on how to use the V-chip and on the boxes that block certain cable programming. TV should learn from the makers of video games and overhaul its program ratings. Parents, too, need to stop making excuses. If figuring out the V-chip truly is that hard, there's always the much simpler option of hitting the on-off button.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company