Government-backed ratings and the V-chip may change the future of programming

By Ken Tucker
Updated March 22, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

My 6-year-old daughter recently began doing an appalling little dance in which she wiggles her bottom, pats it with her hand, and chants ”Booty slap, booty slap.” I asked her where the devil she picked that up. ”On TV,” she said brightly, ”there were these two cool guys and that blond girl, and they did the Booty Slap.” Close questioning of her older sister revealed that the little one had seen the opening moments of the Grammy Awards show and witnessed host Ellen DeGeneres (”that blond girl”) and a couple of dancers doing this dance as a joke. Now, a 6-year-old booty slapping is annoyingly vulgar, but it also occurred to me that this is just the sort of TV-created irritation that has led many people to throw up their hands and let outside forces intervene.

The V-chip, the micro-whatsit designed to block out violent or vulgar material on TV, is now a foregone conclusion, as is the imminent implementation of a ratings system for television programming. We’re past the stage of arguing over whether either of these things is good or bad, even though I’ll bet lots of people feel the way I do: that an enormous amount of time, thought, and technology is being put to a problem that is none of the government’s business.

But since election-year grandstanding makes this subject an attractive one for politicians, and since so many parents apparently refuse to take responsibility for what their children watch (there’s a free, currently available V-chip: the mom or dad who either says, ”Turn that damn thing off!” or is willing to deal with resulting behavior), laziness is now legislatively sanctioned. Our end-of-the-century alternative to the supposedly popular notion of keeping government off our backs involves computer chips and voluntary censorship. Yet even a time-tested dunderhead like the Rev. Donald Wildmon — head of the creativity-squelching American Family Association and the guy who asked advertisers to boycott NYPD Blue before it even hit the airwaves — is against the V-chip. Wildmon says it ”institutionalizes violence” by giving the networks a guilt-free option to offer gore as long as they’re willing to have a certain percentage of viewers block such programming.

V-chip legislation breeds such cynicism on every level. Don’t try soft-soaping what’s going on here: The moment on Feb. 29 when the network heads met with President Clinton and agreed to develop a ratings system, what rare artistic freedom television now permits became further endangered. Distinctions between good entertainment with mature themes and mere exploitative junk are now irrelevant; we’re throwing the baby of creativeness out with the bathwater of Walker, Texas Ranger.

One could argue that a V-chip gives parents the option to block out the sleazy-themed daytime talk shows and afternoon soaps written for adults, and that that’s no loss to democracy. But will a ratings system make distinctions between the rough language on a trash-talking episode of Sally Jessy Raphael and the more artfully composed crudeness on a good show like NYPD Blue? Will a ratings system mean that even so powerfully popular a show as Friends might have to move to a time later than its current 8 p.m. Thursday slot to prevent more young ears from hearing its occasionally randy punchlines?

Confronted with all this, I have one suggestion. From this point on, instead of making things simpler, let’s make them more complicated. Let’s not let anyone — the government, the networks, parents — off the hook. For example, rather than aping the movies’ ratings system, give us more extensive television ratings that break everything down: Tell us the subject matter that might be offensive; tell us what the nature of the violence is; tell us whether vulgar language is used in a show and to what degree. (It seems unlikely that television will end up using the movies’ letter rating system, if only because, as The Wall Street Journal quoted one ad buyer as saying recently, ??No advertiser is ever going to admit they advertise on an R-rated show.??)

I guess I’d countenance a ratings system if it actually did what Rev. Wildmon fears it will. Which is to say, if you want a ratings system and a V-chip, you have to concede that some shows will indeed be more mature, more graphic, than others. And that, once warned, we should all be allowed to watch work that is as close to its creators’ intentions as possible, no matter how sexy or dirty — or serious or disturbing. But it would seem that the last thing on the mind of anyone involved in this mess is the notion of making television more challenging, interesting, or adventurous. There are a lot of people out there who need their booties slapped.