Sept. 23, 2004 -- A majority of American parents support regulations restricting sexual and violent television content viewed by children amid concern that a barrage of salacious material is affecting their kids, according to a national survey released Thursday.
But the survey shows at the same time that few parents use V-chips capable of editing inappropriate programming, despite wide availability of the technology in all new television sets. Few also understand voluntary ratings used by programmers.
More than half of 1,000 parents polled say they are very concerned about the amount of sex and violence their children watch on TV. Sixty-three percent say they favor new rules limiting such content during early evening family viewing hours when kids are most likely to sit in front of the set, according to the survey, conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Public and political scrutiny of media decency peaked in the wake of a February incident in which pop star Janet Jackson had her breast exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show on CBS. The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday handed the network a $550,000 fine for violating broadcast decency standards during the nation's highest-rated television event.
"I think the reality is that parents are far more concerned with the sex and violence their children see every day," says Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser vice president who conducted the poll.
Still, few parents avail themselves of available tools for curbing potentially harmful viewing by kids, the study shows.
Federal law has required V-chips to be installed in all TV's larger than 13 inches sold in the U.S. after 2000. But only 15% of parents say they use the technology, while only 40% of those who are sure their TV includes a chip actually use it.
Parents are mostly split on whether TV shows are accurately rated for sex, violence, or foul language, though few can correctly say what each of the various TV ratings means, the survey shows.
"I think that the ratings system is a partial failure" because so few parents know how to use it, says Kathleen Abernathy, an FCC commissioner who appeared at a briefing unveiling the survey. But Abernathy says that regulations restricting early evening TV content are unlikely because of First Amendment concerns.
Congress is still in negotiations over a measure that would boost existing fines for broadcast indecency by 10 times. "I think there's a good chance we're going to be able to get that done this year," says Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who sponsored the bill.
But more than fines, advocates decry a lack of education on the availability of rating systems and technology for parents who worry about their kids' TV watching. Only 6% of parents surveyed were aware of American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations urging parents to avoid letting children under 2 years of age watch television.
"If this is something that the pediatricians feel strongly about; it's going to have to be communicated much more effectively to parents," Rideout says.
"We give the parents the tools, but we put them out there without educating them about the tools," says Patti Miller, director of the children and media program at Children Now, an advocacy group.
Some activists have called for a single, uniform rating system that applies to all media content, including movies, television, and video games, arguing that separate ratings for different forms of entertainment are too hard to understand.
Jack Valenti, former president of the Motion Picture Association of America, stresses that movie ratings have been successful because they are simple and voluntary. But he says that uniform ratings are unworkable because of the huge volume of movies, music, and other media produced each year.
"It's humanly impossible for one panel to do the ratings," he says.
The FCC could consider moves to enforce broadcast-style decency standards on cable stations and is likely to take a closer look at advertising content during children's programming times. But the bottom line, Abernathy says, is more attention by parents of children's viewing habits.
"You need to be a more proactive parent. It's just the way it is," she says.