A Good Symbolic Gesture


After holding out against the full monty V-chip rating system, NBC last week joined the other broadcast networks and cable industry to put the system in place. It will add so-called descriptors—like V for violence or L for language—to its on-screen ratings guide and air the ratings more often.

NBC has always been concerned over the First Amendment implications of the system. So were we, afraid the ratings would become a device to chill content rather than set it free.

Eight years later, NBC has had a chance to watch and learn, and it doesn't appear that the ratings have frightened broadcasters into timidity. (We already have a Federal Communications Commission and Congress for that).

NBC's announcement came on the heels of one by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association that it will begin displaying its ratings larger and repeat them after every commercial break.

How much good all that flagging will do is debatable. But if CSI is any indication, the threat of slapping a V symbol on the screen prior to a show has not prevented programmers from exercising their creative fluids in the violence department.

Virtually nobody uses the V-chip or cable blocking mechanisms, so, from a practical standpoint, adding the S, L and V to the ratings, as NBC will now do, does not seem the threat it once did. And if it ultimately helps viewers take more control over their programming, there is nothing wrong with that.

The S, L and V descriptors allow the chip to block far more categories of programming. But that isn't going to change viewing habits appreciably if the experience of all the other networks, which have been using the descriptors for years, is any example. And even if it does, there is as much chance that it will free broadcasters to program the edgier content that will keep them competitive as that it will create widespread censorship.

Things have changed in the past eight years, and not just politically. Viewers are less passive and more interactive, and they do have a lot more channels to navigate.

We do have a problem with the timing, as both the cable and broadcast industries rush to please Washington and nervous advertisers. But there is an upside to the move that broadcasters must capitalize on.

Now that everyone will effectively be on the same page, with the ratings system consistent across the broadcast networks, they can stop suggesting that cable be regulated down to their level on indecency and start making a strong case to the courts for being as free as other media. That's a great goal.

Speech can be regulated, but only if the means to regulate it is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest—in this case, protecting children from inappropriate content. Five years ago, the Supreme Court, in a case involving the Playboy Channel, ruled that the mere availability of a channel-blocking mechanism—even if it's not used—is suitable protection against programming that some might find offensive.

Now that broadcasters can make that same claim, they should receive the same protection from an overzealous government. That would be a win-win for everybody.