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3 minute read
Bruce Handy

ONE APPEALING THING ABOUT CHANNEL SURFING IS THAT anyone can become a satirist with the mere flick of a wrist. For instance, last Thursday morning you could have watched President Clinton, live on cnn from the White House, as he flattered the assembled heads of the American television industry for recognizing that “their creativity and their freedom carries with it [sic] significant responsibility.” What with V chips and elections looming, politicians and moguls were all doing their best to appear high-minded. But–in New York City, at any rate–you could have quickly subverted the mood by flipping over to the local Fox station, where Montel Williams, even more ostensibly concerned than the White House aggregation, presided as a psychiatrist asked a sexually adventuresome teenage bride, “What is it about pain that makes you feel good?” “I can’t explain,” she replied, adding rhetorically, “Why do you like chocolate pudding?”

This juxtaposition prompts a number of related observations. One: even as it promised reform, the television industry was up to its old tricks, pumping out sleaze right under the President’s nose (in a sort of postmodern, electronic sense). Two: Montel’s show could be read as an inadvertent discourse on the differing tastes and points of view that will make a coherent ratings system for TV so maddeningly difficult to implement. And three: this writer was looking for a way to watch TV and call it work.

So for 2 1/2 hours, concurrently with the White House “summit,” I took it upon myself to troll my cable box in order to get a feel for precisely the sort of sex and violence the conferees were fretting. I might add that I am well qualified for the task, having worked five years ago as a writer on a short-lived Fox program called Best of the Worst, a compendium of so-awful-they-were-ostensibly-amusing video clips. One example: a Japanese game show called Endurance that featured men having their nipples burned by a magnifying glass.

I didn’t find anything that good last Thursday on American TV–just the usual hash of soaps, Sesame Street, talk, news (“We begin with a child’s torment–a young boy beaten by a pipe!”) and reruns of ’70s cop shows, the latter accounting for most of the nonjournalistic violence. All told, I witnessed five killings, one every half hour. Not too horrific, but the count surely would have been higher had AMC been featuring John Wayne instead of Ronald Colman.

Offhand I’d say about 10% of what I caught in my nonscientific sampling was exactly the kind of fare you’d want a V chip for. I mean, no one could object to blocking a five-year-old from watching Montel Williams, although I think that by the age of 12 a child should be able to appreciate the show for what it reveals about the stagey sanctimony of many public figures, and about the public’s eagerness to be exploited for fame or fortune; these are valuable life lessons. The real problem with the V-chip system is that it won’t protect kids or anyone else from TV’s most pernicious messages, like the right cream rinse will make you happier, or there are no problems that can’t be solved in half an hour. You know, the kind of quick-fix thinking that might lead someone–a politician, say–to believe that the V chip will be more than just a benign distraction from the genuinely thorny problems–actual violence, say–facing American kids.

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