When singer Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show in February, there was little question in the minds of most parents that the act--whether intentional or not--was not something they wanted their kids to see. The Federal Communications Commission agreed, fining CBS a record $550,000 on Wednesday for airing Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction."
But even with the FCC acting as a watchdog, American parents are finding it harder than ever to stop their children's exposure to explicit sexual content. While the commission forbids such material on network programs between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., that ruling doesn't cover increasingly raunchy cable shows. And even on mainstream networks, parents are finding it harder to identify shows that may not be obscene but are still inappropriate for young viewers.
The FCC has tried to make it easier by working with networks to implement a ratings system for TV shows and, since 2000, almost all new TV sets are installed with so-called V-chips, which allow parents to block programming with adult content. But a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that just 15 percent of parents use the V-chip. Indeed, four out of 10 who purchased new TV sets didn't realize they came equipped with the tool. And only half of parents report using the TV ratings to guide their children's viewing. NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett Ozols spoke with FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, the mother of an 8-year-old, about the study's findings and whether the FCC is doing enough to help parents figure out what TV shows are right for their kids. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: The survey shows that nearly two thirds of parents want the government to place tighter controls on sex and violence on television. Does that surprise you?
Kathleen Abernathy: As a parent, it would make my life so much easier if someone would do that. So that answer doesn't surprise me because the survey was of parents, not single or older people. But what this tells me [as a commissioner] is that parents don't think the tools we give them to protect and inform their children are enough. So what they're saying is: can you just fix the content because we don't know any other way to manage what our kids are watching.
There is the V-chip. But even though these chips have been required in most new TV sets, the study found that 40 percent of parents with new sets don't realize their TVs have a V-chip.
This all tells me that parents don't feel like they have the tools in this multimedia world to guide and accurately control what is coming into their homes and what their kids are watching. We have got to do a better job of informing parents about ratings, letting them know how to find the ratings, and how to use the V-chip and the blocking technology and giving them the tools to direct their kids to the good programs ... It's not just tools to prevent and monitor violence and sexual content in the home but to turn this [TV] into something that's actually constructive to kids.
Half the parents surveyed said they used the ratings to help choose appropriate programming for their children, but 20 percent said they had never even heard of the ratings system. Why do you think that is?
I think it is because it's not publicized, and if you look at a TV guide, I don't think it's there. And it only pops up at the very beginning of a show and maybe once in the middle, so it's not surprising to me that parents are unfamiliar with it. It's unfortunate, though, because it can be very helpful because it tells you if there's violent or sexual content. Again, it better informs parents.
Has the FCC considered requiring the rating to be up throughout the programs?
We can look at that. But what would be faster is to work with the industry to just start doing it.
Do you think that will happen?
There were some signals from networks that there is recognition that they can and should do more. The first step is, hopefully, we can take the results of this survey and get some momentum going on ways to help parents use this medium more effectively as far as keeping off stuff they don't want their kids to see and directing them to programming that is educational.
The survey also found that more than half of all parents, 52 percent, said they would like to see federal regulators apply content standards to cable stations. Do you think that could happen?
Certainly it would be a significant challenge legally. As regulators, we are always trying to balance First Amendment requirements and free speech and the ability for folks to find the kind of media entertainment they want to watch against the very real desire to protect children from inappropriate content. The distinction is that cable is invited into the home (not streaming over the air) and there are other ways to control access to your kids ... We can't just say: nothing inappropriate for children for 24 hours a day. With technology, between the V-chip and the device the cable programmers provide that prevents certain things from coming into the home--legally, I know we can do those sorts of things. But I think it'd be harder to directly regulate the content.
Have networks been receptive to the ratings system and restrictions on content?
Initially there were issues, but then they did all embrace the ratings. Given that they have spent the money on establishing the ratings and the V-chip is in all the TVs now, wouldn't you want people to know about it?
The FCC fined CBS $550,000 on Wednesday for the Janet Jackson incident during the Super Bowl. That's the maximum fine, right?
It is. Under the law, there are certain programs you cannot air, indecent programming. If some gets through, then we punish them. We found that programming to be indecent. But for parents the other question is: what about the programs that aren't indecent but are clearly inappropriate. That's why we need them to be educated about the ratings.
Do you think such fines are effective?
By law, between certain hours there can't be any indecent programming. The fine and forfeiture authority says that if you play fast and loose with what is or isn't "indecent," it will hurt you. As any parent knows, sometimes you need a little incentive. I do think that most [broadcasters] want to comply with our regulations. But as we get into a world where you have new and different programming on cable competing for eyeballs, the networks want to go further. "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" got [Emmy] awards, but those shows couldn't be seen on networks. We have to continually remind networks of that.
The conservative Family Research Council released a statement that it was "very encouraged" by the CBS fine. But it added: "Lack of FCC enforcement of indecency laws has encouraged networks to add more and more sexual incidents, fouler language, and even indecent exposure." How would you respond to that?
Their job is different than mine. I'd like to think it wasn't that we weren't enforcing our laws, but that there has been a lot of competitive pressure from nonregulated content providers and this has unfortunately led some networks to skate too close to this line. We've told them they can't do that and that has had an impact. There are 10-second delays on many [live] shows now. The good news is that even if some broadcasters aren't always putting on what I think is good for kids, I can go to PBS or the Discovery Channel or National Geographic or C-Span. But it requires me as a parent to be more proactive.
How does being a parent affect your perspective as a regulator?
What it means is I've gone through a lot of this, trying to find the programming and trying to understand the ratings--and appreciating all these good intentions. Some of it just falls short and we need to do more.