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Simple Cure for Indecency Fracas

Jack Valenti, the 85-year-old wizard who presided over the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years, has one of the best solutions for television’s alleged “indecency” problem: Advertise.

Namely, let the public know that their television set (if it was bought since 2000) has a V-chip in it that allows parents to block out programming they may not want their kids to see. On every TV set sold, he suggested at the Senate Commerce Committee’s Forum on Indecency last week, there ought to be a bright-yellow sticker telling consumers the chip is there, and how to use it.

Good idea. Another one came from Alan Wurtzel, chief executive of broadcast standards and practice for NBC. He suggested that, if broadcast and cable networks would get serious about publicizing the device and simplify the content ratings, “I can pretty much guarantee, after a year of concerted effort, you would find a significant increase in the use of the V-chip because it’s exactly what the consumer is looking for.” Similarly, cable has blocking devices that do the same job. They’re simple to use.

That’s the smartest way to give power to the people to decide what to watch, or not. The answer is not a “family tier” on cable. What family would we be aiming at: the one whose dad is Ozzy Osbourne or the one whose dad is Ozzie Nelson?

And the answer is not creating an à la carte system that would almost certainly collapse ethnic and niche networks. We’re surprised Cablevision Chairman Chuck Dolan came out in favor of à la carte. We suspect, if it happened, that WE: Women’s Entertainment, owned by Cablevision offshoot Rainbow Entertainment Services, would be among the first to be à la carted out of millions of homes.

We opposed the V-chip and the program-content ratings when they came into being, largely because both were forced on the television industry. But the fact is, rather than constricting TV fare, the ratings and the V-chip could liberate it. Telling parents a program is going to be violent or sexy or both and giving them a way to stop their kids from watching puts the ultimate responsibility on the people who should be in charge: Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public.

Television is a selling machine. If the industry explains these television aids to the public, that would go a long way toward solving the indecency problem it has in Washington. (We don’t believe television has a big indecency problem anywhere else.)

Television won’t ever be totally sanitized, regardless of the outcome of the debate. Nor should it be. Valenti was the wisest owl at the hearing on that score, too. He admitted that “there are some movies I wouldn’t defend if my life depended on it” but added, “That’s the price you pay for democracy. Democracy is quite messy.”