The Senate Commerce Committee this week held a hearing “Rethinking the Children’s Television Act for a Digital Media Age” to explore if rules governing television programming for children should be updated to reflect the new media world that we now live in.
Among those testifying before the committee was new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who mentioned that the FCC will be launching a Notice of Inquiry that will address these issues including how “the FCC can best protect children in a digital age,” and he said that the agency will look at “new concerns and new opportunities in the new media world.”
During the hearing, some members of the committee mentioned how they would like a tool on a TV or remote control (specifically, the idea of a “little red button” ) to provide information about the show and the show’s rating.
From cable’s perspective, the good news is that this button (which sometimes even comes in red) already exists. About 65% of cable customers subscribe to digital cable service and their set-top box remote controls include an “Info” (or other similarly worded) button that, when pressed, pulls up program content descriptions and ratings.
But perhaps even more important than this one button, cable operators have for many years empowered their customers with parental control options built right into cable’s set-top boxes that enable families to monitor and control TV viewing in their household.
Cable’s parental controls take just a few simple steps to set up via the easy-to-use on-screen menus which are guided by the remote control. The industry has also created and participated in programs to educate parents about these tools, like the Control Your TV and The TV Boss campaigns of recent years.
Parental control tools help parents both identify programming that is appropriate (or inappropriate) for their children, and then provide a way for parents to block access to programming that they do not want their children to watch. The parental controls work well because both programmers (those who produce the content) and operators (those who deliver the content) are working together.
For their part, cable programmers utilize a common rating system to provide parents with information about a show’s age appropriateness and its content. The so-called “content descriptors” for the program tell parents why a particular show was given a specific rating, making is much easier to decide if the program is something they want their kids to watch. Using the ratings information provided by the programmers, cable operators then provide customers with the technology to identify and block programming based on these ratings, as well as a variety of other options.
There are many ways parents can use these tools. Entire channels, or entire features like video-on-demand, on a cable line-up can be blocked. Programming can be blocked based on age-appropriateness via the age-based ratings, or by content descriptions, or both. Once an age-appropriate viewing level has been set, the parental control tools can automatically lock higher ratings or levels of content.
For example, if a customer chooses to lock based on the TV-PG rating, all higher-rated content – such as TV-14 and TV-MA – is automatically blocked. If a customer chooses to block based on a content descriptor – such as “moderate violence” – higher levels of violent content will also be automatically blocked. And some digital boxes also enable customers to block content based on time and day.
These tools are really at the fingertips of parents, and it is as easy to turn on these settings for the kids, as it is easy to temporarily turn off all locks (for adults to view what they like) and have those locks automatically restored once the set-top box is turned off.
Besides the easy-to-use parental control technology, cable offers hours and hours – and channels and channels – of kid-friendly, family, and educational programming. Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation did a great job highlighting the many available options in his post: We Are Living in the Golden Age of Children’s Programming.
Cable TV allows kids to explore animals from Discovery Kids show Bindi the Jungle Girl, travel to faraway places with Nick’s Dora the Explorer and dance alongside Mickey Mouse on Disney. However, in order for cable to entertain everyone, there are some shows that don’t cater to children. Parents are best suited to decide what channels and shows their children should watch, and then utilize the parental control tools to help carry through on these decisions.