NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The FCC released a long-awaited report last week on the effect of violent television programming on children. Among their conclusions, there is strong evidence that exposure to violent TV shows can increase aggressive behavior in children. Their recommendations include banning some shows from some timeslots when kids are more likely to be watching, and forcing cable and satellite operators to offer a la carte service from which consumers can pick and choose kid-friendly channels.
Not everyone agrees with the FCC's recommendations. In an op-ed that appeared in the Los Angeles Times today, the editor of "Reason" magazine, Nick Gillespie, argues that giving the government the remote control is not only foolish, it's redundant in a media world with channel-blocking and V-chips.
So what do you think? Should violence be regulated by the FCC, or simply by mom and dad? Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation. And Nick Gillespie joins us from the studios of member station WMUB at the University of Miami in Ohio. Nice to have you back on the program, Nick.
Mr. NICK GILLESPIE (Editor-in-Chief, Reason Magazine): Thanks a lot, Neal. I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And you write - the headline of your piece is, "The FCC's Not Our Mommy Or Daddy." You say they're not acting - in fact, many of the commissioners, when they wrote, were not acting as government commissioners, but rather as parents.
Mr. GILLESPIE: Oh, that's true. A number of them, in their statements of support for the document, actually, brought out the fact that they were parents, as I am. So I think, you know, it's an odd things when people who are in charge of making cost-benefit analysis start playing the parent card. I think that's usually a sign that something is kind of rotten here.
One of the things I would like to correct, though - while you're right that the FCC report underscored the idea that many people think that there's a connection between fantasy violence and real world violence, the FCC itself did no actual research on this, and they were relying on the conclusion of a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General report which suggested that many researchers do think there's a link, but itself concluded - and I'm quoting here - "many questions remain regarding the short and long term effects of media violence, especially on violent behavior."
And this is one of the questions that I think anybody has to ask about the FCC report, is that they do reiterate or they presume that there is some clear, demonstrable link between watching violent TV and then committing violent acts. But they never addressed the fact that since 1994, according to the Department of Justice, juvenile offenders - the people who are most likely to be influenced by violent images on TV - arrests for violent juvenile offenses have gone way down. They're below where they were in the 1970s, when the Department of Justice started keeping these stats.
CONAN: Yet there is no question that the number of violent incidents on TV is way, way up.
Mr. GILLESPIE: Yeah, that's certainly correct. And the other thing that's actually an interesting backdrop to all of this is that the FCC, in its report, actually presumes that the FCC - which at this point can only regulate contents on broadcast radio and broadcast TV - it simply presumes that it should be regulating the same content on cable television.
CONAN: They also...
Mr. GILLESPIE: So what I mean, what we're talking about here, they - I mean, at the outset or almost the presumption is a sense of mission creep. As the FCC chairman, Kevin Morton, said in his statement of support, that parents need more tools that the FCC would help supply that address violent programming on all platforms, whether it's broadcast, cable or satellite.
CONAN: It also gives them, you know, a lever to address the issue of unbundling these cable TV packages where you're buying basic cable, and you get all these stations whether you want them or not.
Mr. GILLESPIE: That's right. Although by the same token, I mean, this is kind of like when you buy a fixed-price meal at a restaurant or something like that, generally speaking, the a la carte options are available, but they're going to be more expensive.
But more to the point, one of the things that the FCC has been pushing a la carte pricing - and I'm not sure how much most people care about that, because virtually every cable system in America - and certainly every television that's been sold since about 2000 - comes with the ability to block specific channels. So it's not clear that a la carte is going to gain you anything other than absolutely kicking out certain types of stations that you don't like.
CONAN: But if you had ala carte choices to make, you could make sure that there was no way - even if your kid figured out the code word - that they can watch, what, SpikeTV or something like that?
Mr. GILLESPIE: I guess so. And you know, this one of the things though that -it, you know - yeah, that's absolutely right.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in this conversation. Do you think there is too much violence on TV? And if you do, do you think it's the FCC's job to regulate that? Give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK; email is email@example.com. Let's start with Jim. And Jim's calling us from Spencer in Iowa.
JIM (Caller): Hello.
JIM: Yeah. As a writer and an actor, I see violence on television, in the movies. I see this as an art form. I relate to this as something that's done through special effects. And unless it's some kind of reality TV, I don't see where it's actual violence in the truest sense. I regulate my children's viewing and my grandchildren in the same way. So I simply don't see this as, you know, the same kind of violence that somebody would experience in the playground or in the yard, or in somebody's home, in a bar. It's not the same at all.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. But if they were real violence, you know - I guess on the Internet, these bum fights and things like that - would you object to that?
JIM: I would object to that, and I object to the kind of violence I see in the newscasts, where there's no regulation of, you know - when somebody is actually, you know, shot or explosions on the battlefield, and I know that people have just been incinerated, I'm appalled by that.
Mr. GILLESPIE: You know, one of the questions that's implicitly raised by this conversation is how do you define violence. And the FCC report actually talks about that a fair amount. And they never really come to a good conclusion. They talk about how Congress could come up with a definition of violence, which would then possibly pass constitutional muster. Because in fact there is a -it's not clear that there are legal precedents where any court, particularly in the end the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that it is easy or it's the proper role of government to regulate the content for violent content only.
This is actually very difficult. And it's one of those things like pornography, where people kind of know violence when they see it. But your definition of what constitutes violence which needs to be banned versus what mine might be -very difficult to come to. When you add in the courts, you know, it essentially - some people such as the great First Amendment scholar and lawyer Robert Corn-Revere has said that there's no way that something - anything the FCC comes up with would ever pass constitutional muster.
CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call.
JIM: You bet.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with Celine, Celine with us from Tucson, Arizona.
CELINE (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well. Thank you.
CELINE: I'm so glad you're covering this information. But I definitely believe the FCC should regulate the violence. And one of my concerns - I have a four-year-old. And one my concerns is Children's Network and Nickelodeon. I think a lot of parents think, well, with the names like that, they can trust them. But if you really watch those programs, there's a lot of violence on them.
And I also have Comcast On Demand. One of my biggest concerns with them was that, for example, when you request a show on demand, once it's over, they have advertisements in the upper right screen for movies that can be all these violent movies. And I've requested Comcast to have a separate - a way to separate children from that advertisement. And they said, well, there's nothing we can do. So I'm thrilled that they can do something about this.
CONAN: So I just wanted a follow up. Nick Gillespie, one of the points you make is that there is this plethora of channels now available on cable that, you know, specifically designed for children. And obviously Celine thinks that even some of that is way too violent.
Mr. GILLESPIE: Well, you know, one of the things also - it's clear that she seems a little bit upset by the commercial dimension of television...
Mr. GILLESPIE: ...which is certainly true. And you hear a lot of parents saying, you know, I don't want my kids to have products pushed down their throats all the time, things like that. But one of the things that is actually, I think, is indisputably true is that there is no doubt there are more channels that are specifically devoted to children and what most people would consider kid friendly-fair, whether you're talking about NOGGIN or Sprout or Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, you name it. But there are also more tools than ever available for parents to kind of quarantine the types of stuff that they want their kids to watch.
And one of the things that is very important is that these tools are individualized or able to be changed by individuals, so that if I want to block certain programs, I can. If you want to block other programs, you can.
The FCC notes that parents have a ton of tools, you know, at their fingertips, but that most of them don't use them, which also suggests another possible explanation, which is if only 12 percent of parents are using the V-Chip, you know, on a regular basis, it might be because parents like to complain about violence in general, but they're actually not that motivated to do anything about it, because certainly there are all sorts of ways to keep your kids from watching certain things.
And remember, all TVs come with the ultimate kind of program nullifier, which is the on-off switch. So you know, it's always within the realm of parents' abilities to actually control what there are watching, to greater of lesser degrees.
CONAN: Celine, do you use the V-Chip?
CELINE: No, we don't. Actually, but I just monitor everything very closely.
CONAN: Why don't...
CELINE: You know, every program he's watching. I used to record things so that I would not have to be concerned about that, about commercials or anything. But yeah, I think, you know, one of my things might be that the V-Chip may be why there's only 12 percent of uses, that it just falls on the bottom of the to-do list for so many parents.
And we just wish that there was an easier way, and I think that for so many people, I would like to see if there's a Web site where we can voice our opinions, where parents can voice their opinions. And then, I think if the FCC does get involved in regulation, that that would help parents. I think that most parents...
Mr. GILLESPIE: Well, here - you know what, let me kind of be a turd in a punchbowl here, but you know, why should your determination of what is appropriate for a four-year-old dictate what I might be able to see? So you can petition the FCC or somebody else to say, you know what, let's get rid of "Ed, Edd n Eddy" because there's too much slapstick comedy in that, or some other children show. I actually think that's wrong. I think the responsibility is yours as a parent, and if you're watching everything the kid watches anyway, then, you know, block certain things, use the V-chip or use some other means of control. There are other - again, most TVs come with these things as well as there are other third party software programs that you can get.
But I just don't think it's right to say, in a country that values free expression, to say, okay, well, one set of parents or one subset of parents gets to dictate what everyone sees. And this goes back to that definition of violence - very difficult to do. And then if we're going to start regulating violent images, including on the news - are we going to start looking at political content, sexual content, alternative lifestyle content - very big can of worms.
We live in a great age where there's more stuff out there than ever before, and more ways of regulating them.
CELINE: That's true. How about a better way - okay, how about (unintelligible) you compromised with saying, for example, that there - only a certain time of the day that parents could be, you know, be very notified. Let's say it's after 6:00 p.m. such as such content is allowable, so that parents can shut other TVs off and make it simple on parents.
Mr. GILLESPIE: I - actually, you know, having a child is a choice. And I think that - and again, I say that as a parent of two. And it means that you should have primary responsibility. It's not up to other people to childproof the world because you and I choose to have children. And you know, I think it's time that we say we live in an age, again, of incredible self-expression, where people can express themselves through video, through art, through text. Let's not compromise with the First Amendment...
Mr. GILLESPIE: ...just as we're delivering up...
CONAN: And let's not all shout at the same time.
CELINE: (Unintelligible) occurred. I remember I wanted to watch this 5:30 news. So I turned the TV on at 5:27, and I was flicking channels and came across Children's Network. And there was a boy about 10 years old, and he was doing this thing where there was like an Elmo-like character next to him and he put a slingshot to him directly in his face. And then he - the little Elmo character said, I want to, you know, I love taking baths, and so making fun of him he jumped on him and the character - there's a fight and the character comes up and he's all half shaven. It was extremely violent. And then on three minutes later comes the news that just had occurred at Columbine. So it was no surprise to me.
CONAN: All right. Celine, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Nick Gillespie, the editor in chief of Reason magazine. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line now. This is Stefan, Stefan with us from Anchorage, Alaska. Is it Stefan or Stefan?
STEFAN (Caller): It's Stefan. How are you doing, Neal?
CONAN: I'm good.
STEFAN: Yeah. I think I completely agree with your guest speaker. I'm a 55-year-old man. I have my first child. My son Sean is going to be one-year-old next week.
STEFAN: Thank you. Thank you very much. Yeah, it's a real experience. I think it's my responsibility. I don't think that it's government's responsibility or any regulatory body's responsibility to - I don't want to delegate anymore of my parenting responsibilities to the government. I think a lot of parents are already doing that. Not doing their job as the primary caregiver. I want to guide my son and - that's my job. So I think I really agree with your guest.
STEFAN: Yeah. That's what I have to say.
CONAN: Okay. All right. Thanks very much, Stefan. And again, wish your son a happy birthday for us.
STEFAN: Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: It's an email on the other side from Christie in Portland, Oregon. Yes, it has to be a relationship between consumer choice and some government responsibility. I believe we don't need studies to make links. Simple common sense will suffice. It won't give children cavities or decrease their educational experience by having this partnership to regulate or inform consumers of violent content. Much like the warnings on music, it's in the best interest of all. And some of the FCC commissioners said, look, it is in sort of society's interest that we reduce this violence.
Mr. GILLESPIE: Oh, yeah. But that's predicated upon, I think, a demonstrably false equation between fantasy violence and real world violence. And you know, one of the things to say is that, you know, why do you need government regulation of these images if people can turn away, if people can channel their TVs the way that they want to, if people can regulate it themselves. It seems to me that everybody wins in that sense. And why - as I was saying before - why should we compromise on the First Amendment or on the ability to express ourselves freely? Just really as a society we're delivering on that promise for the first time because of various types of technology.
CONAN: And finally, Nick Gillespie, this FCC report was at the behest of Congress. This is a political issue as well as simply the FCC's statement. Where do you think this is going?
Mr. GILLESPIE: This is a really interesting question, and it plays into partisan politics in very kind of strange and offbeat types of ways. Michael Powell, the former head of the FCC, had talked about how it just didn't make sense to have one set of government regulations covering broadcast and another - or lack of regulation of content covering cable and satellite, especially since more people get cable and satellite now than they do - even though broadcast channels through a cable system.
And he used to push the idea that you can't have two platforms and that it would make sense that - he actually told Reason in an interview that he was betting that people - if given a choice between content regulation by the government or free expression that's similar to what newspapers enjoy, newspapers and magazines - the American people would say let's give the First Amendment rights to everybody who's in broadcasting or media. The newer - Kevin Martin, the current head, as well as...
CONAN: And very quickly, please.
Mr. GILLESPIE: ...under a Democrat, it might go the other way. So this is a showdown that will not go away, and it may end up with...
CONAN: Nick, I'm sorry.
Mr. GILLESPIE: ...the government restricting what we can say.
CONAN: Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason magazine, thanks very much. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.