Parents, pediatricians and legislators ask what can be done to reduce the brutality, cruelty and carnage children see on television.
The TV set's off button may have provided sufficient control before cable arrived, when in most families one spouse stayed home with the children. But as violence on television has increased, so have the number of working mothers, single parents, home-alone kids and calls for censorship.So far, Congress has wisely resisted efforts to purge the screen of murder and mayhem, but the issue has moved up the ladder of national concerns.
Responding to congressional hearings, four commercial broadcast networks have promised to provide parent advisories on the few prime-time shows the networks concede are too brutal for young audiences.
Fortunately, the technology exists to help parents when "just say no" doesn't work. Congress should mandate that every set carry a computer connection that permits parents to lock out shows they consider inappropriate for their kids.
With 500 available channels around the corner, it makes sense to build into TV sets a programmable capability that scrambles unwanted signals.
Rep. Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, who deserves accolades for his efforts to improve kids' television, suggests an anti-violence button that can automatically block shows aired with a "V for Violence" electronic signal - an idea that can be too easily misused.
To enable viewers to cancel categories of programs puts too much control into the hands of those applying the ratings.
But there is no threat to free speech in a mechanism that works only if parents check out TV schedules and choose what to zap and punch in the times and channel numbers.
So far the debate has focused on what is available on television. We should pay more attention to what's missing from service to children and families. Congress can take three steps in the direction of more TV choices for children:
First, ensure that broadcasters don't continue to get away with undermining the Children's Television Act of 1990 to provide regularly scheduled programs specifically designed to serve the education needs of young viewers.
Second, increase the money allocated to PBS program services, recognizing that public broadcasting is a major source of terrific television for children.
Third, guarantee that a substantial amount of future channel capacity is reserved for public uses, freed from the need to serve corporate interests.
No solutions will change the TV set from Pandora's box to Aladdin's lamp without parental participation.
If they don't exercise responsibility for what their children watch on TV, who should?