Consumer Choice vs. Pointless Publicity

As the reputation of cable television has darkened considerably over the last few years with every lurid “Sopranos” whacking and every ghoulish plastic surgery on “Nip/Tuck,” public protest and congressional inquiries have led the cable industry to promise change.

Change the tone of their TV slop? No, they promised a campaign to sell technological gadgetry to help the adults navigate around their gooey and graphic messes. Two years ago, the National Cable Television Association started a pathetic public-relations campaign suggesting cable was putting the parents “in control” – by just educating them about the V-chip.

It's been a decade since Congress mandated the V-chip in TV sets, but the vast majority of parents have never used it, and many don't even know it's there. The cable industry promised to fix that by “spending” $250 million multi-media education campaign. They also promised a few other reforms, such as increasing the size of the TV ratings information box displayed on screen at the start of cable shows, and inserting the box after each commercial break.

Recent “public service” ads with the Ad Campaign have cute little scenes of parents talking back to raunchy television characters, and telling them they're going to be blocked for the sake of the children. The commercials direct parents to an educational website about the V-chip called

After all the promised ads and on-screen boxes, the facts are in. It's not working.

A brand new Zogby poll for the Parents Television Council shows that the vast majority of respondents (88 percent) said they do not have parental-control technology or have not used it in the last week. That's pretty much unchanged from a similar poll last September, which also found almost nine in ten adults don't use the technology. It's not because they don't see a reason to use a V-chip. The new poll also shows that 79 percent of respondents agree there is too much sex, violence, and coarse language on television. Eighty percent agreed with that sentiment last September.

The public is still largely uneducated about the letters the networks use to describe potentially objectionable content. Only eight percent of people surveyed could correctly identify the content descriptors – S for sexual situations, V for violence, L for language, and D for suggestive dialogue – even when provided with the answer in a multiple-choice question. Last September, only seven percent could correctly identify the letters.

If the cable industry had this poor a record of helping sell McDonald's burgers or Toyotas to the public, they'd probably have to look for work.

But the cable industry didn't need for the ads to work. The whole campaign was a sleight of hand, a public-relations stunt to keep Washington from mandating more viewer choice in which channels the American people want to subsidize and welcome into their homes. They are providing the illusion of action, sponsoring pointless publicity that doesn't work, in the hope these hollow gestures will keep Washington politicians from derailing their corrosive race to the bottom.

The cable industry's TV Boss commercials never explained how to use the V-chip or cable-box parental controls. They just announced the fact that you have the technological gadget to do it. They never educated consumers about what the S, V, L, and D represent, or the difference between a Y-7 rating and a TV-14. They merely pointed out the Web site address and asked people to look them up to “learn more.”

Their commercials carry the slogan, “Be the boss of what your kids watch.” Parents can be the boss of their home, but they're clearly not the bosses of television, despite the cute website address. Hollywood, and not the parents, is firmly in charge of the junk that dominates your set. Parents feel a responsibility to monitor what their children watch, but as the choices in cable TV proliferate, it gets harder and harder for parents to keep track. Parents don't feel they can possibly undo everything that the networks have done to shock, disgust, and titillate the viewers, even the youngest ones.

This ad campaign doesn't address the most glaring problem with the V-chip – that even if every parent became a technological whiz with the blocking buttons, the broadcast and cable networks do an incredibly slipshod job of accurately describing potentially objectionable content with those letters that nobody knows.

It's time for Congress to get serious about the cable industry's social irresponsibility, because it's clear the cable bosses aren't serious. This is the last gasp for the credibility of cable companies. Their promises to help parents are cynically empty.