Don't Get Me Started: You Can't Always Get What You Want

A number of years ago, broadcasters started displaying their logo as a semi-translucent image in the bottom right corner of the screen. I find this very distracting, but I suppose it was inevitable; as the number of channels on most cable and satellite systems increases, it becomes harder and harder to remember what channel you're watching. And don't forget the anti-piracy aspect of these logos.

Now, another interloper appears on the broadcast screen: content ratings. Fortunately, these indicators in the top left corner are visible only at the start (and sometimes the hour marker) of a program, so they don't interfere with the primary image. However, they signal a more lingering, potentially disturbing trend in our society.

These ratings identify content that might be objectionable to parents wanting to shield their children from violence, sex, and foul language on TV. They are the television industry's response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996; specifically, Subtitle B, Section 551. In this legislation, Congress concluded that the effect of TV violence and sex on children is negative and mandated solutions to address this problem.

Section 551 prescribes that a set of "guidelines and recommended procedures" should be established "for the identification and rating of video programming that contains sexual, violent, or other indecent material about which parents should be informed before it is displayed to children." It excludes any programming on the basis of news, political, or religious content (which means that any and all reports related to the Lewinsky Affair were exempt!).

In addition, it requires that broadcasters transmit these ratings so that parents can identify programs they have determined to be inappropriate for their children. Finally, Section 551 requires that televisions measuring more than 13 inches diagonally be equipped with technology that enables parents to block programs based on the transmitted ratings.

The technology that uses these ratings to block certain programs from a particular TV set is generically known as the "V-Chip." Actually, this refers to an entire hardware/software system that identifies a program's rating code, allows the user to specify which codes to block, and disables the display during programs with ratings that exceed those codes.

Section 551 also acknowledges the possibility of new technologies that allow program blocking without common broadcast ratings. For example, an outboard box called TVGuardian detects 150 preset words and phrases deemed to be offensive. When it detects these words, it mutes the audio. TVGuardian even attempts to detect words like "God" and "Jesus" when they are used as expletives.

The system works by monitoring the closed-captioning signal; it can even display the CC text with substituted words (such as "move your tail" instead of "move your ass"). The company claims a 95% accuracy rate, and they've tested various titles to demonstrate this. For example, E.T. has 13 offensive words (as defined by the company), and TVGuardian mutes all but one of them. (I wonder which one?)

This is an interesting idea, but it only addresses language, not images of violence or sex. Another system called ClearPlay attempts to do just that. This technology is licensed to DVD-player manufacturers; Thomson offers the service in one of their RCA-brand players. Unlike TVGuardian, ClearPlay relies on pre-defined filters for specific movies; to date, the company offers filters for around 1000 titles, and more are added each week. Users must pay a monthly or yearly subscription to download filters, which are installed in the DVD player from a CD-ROM burned on their computer.

With ClearPlay engaged and the appropriate filter installed, objectionable moments are skipped entirely; according to the company, "the result is often almost seamless." Often almost seamless? This would not be acceptable to most movie buffs I know, and it is certainly not acceptable to most movie professionals. I've heard strong objections from Steven Soderbergh and many other directors, who don't want their artistic intent to be altered by this technology.

Ultimately, I believe these approaches to the "problem" of violence and sex on TV won't work. For one thing, ratings only serve to attract those they are supposed to protect with the lure of the forbidden, and many youngsters are so techno-savvy that they will probably learn to defeat any blocking technology. In addition, the ratings are not applied to the news, which includes some of the most violent (and sometimes the most sexual) material on the air.

Although these content filters appear to give users more control over the television content that enters their home, the real control is elsewhere. All such systems bias the filtering toward the values of their designer, who defines what should and should not be filtered, promoting their particular agenda in the process. As an alternative example, consider a TVGuardian-type product that would let users input the 100 words they didn't want to hear rather than providing a preset dictionary.

An even better solution is found on the Internet. You can configure many home-page sites such as Yahoo! and Excite to automatically deliver only the type of content you want. This is a proactive, truly individual approach rather than a passive, externally imposed one. You specify what you want to see, not what you don't want to see based on someone else's rating system.

As television and the Internet converge (as I believe they will), this type of intelligent agent will provide the best way to control what your family sees on TV. The privilege of free speech demands that virtually any type of content must be allowed expression, but with this privilege comes the responsibility of each individual to consciously select what they want to experience from their TV. That way, you not only get what you need, you get more of what you want—and less of what you don't want.