Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Kids (or adults) need media supervision?

Be grateful (or an ingrate if you will) that the U.S. government is threatening to step in and beat up the entertainment industry for not following vague, undefined guidelines for family-friendly entertainment. Kevin J. Martin no sooner took over the FCC than he sent chilling threats about govt-sponsored regulation of content if cable companies don't police themselves: see the L.A. Times' FCC Chief Sends Cable a Warning.

As the cable companies point out, there are already safeguards in place such as V-Chip and ratings that aren't well-known or used enough. Beyond that, they'll have to make best guesses about what might or might not be acceptable to the government, specifically the FCC and the Congress (both of whom are dying to pounce on this issue and wring it for all the political capital and red meat that it's worth).

Even if the cable companies come up with some kind of compromise to satisfy the government for now, all it will take is one incident that tries to push the envelope (i.e. Janet Jackson at the Superbowl) for the FCC/Congress to come screaming back at them, punishing them with vague legislation. At that point, it's going to be the courts that will have to step in to try to restore some sanity.

Other than TV, video games are still favorites to score political points with when you need to. Again and again, we hear about how Grand Theft Auto is causing the downfall of Generation Z. All good and well for someone who doesn't actually know anything about videos except the scary stuff that the evening news loves to shove in your face. In a 2002 interview I did with author Douglas Rushkoff (a media expert that I truly respect), he explains how our traditional views of video games are actually pretty warped:

"I don't think that music or television or video games lead to violent behavior, certainly not the Littleton type. The research that's actually been done shows that people who have committed these rampage shootings are less likely to play violent video games than the general population is. If you're actually going to try to make a media argument about this violence, you'd have to say that it isn't that these people are involved in too much violent media but that they're not involved in enough of it."

Strange, isn't it? It would be a stretch to think that parents are now going to demand that their kids aren't spending enough time playing video games but it shouldn't be that far-fetched. There's already a number of video games that actually promote learning- see this 2002 BBC article or this Playstation Magazine article that notes the Military and NASA getting the most of some games used in training the brain. Also, a great article from Nation (Playstations for Peace) documents other worthwhile games that kids can wrap their minds around.

The question is whether kids will flock to these as opposed to the games that parents usually get upset about. As Sesame Street has shown us for decades, learning and education don't have to be dour exercises so I'm hopeful about this, especially as the game industry isn't stupid enough to ignore the fact that there are many concerned parents out there who are peachy with their kids playing games that are constructive.

And what about the kids themselves that we're trying to protect? When was the last time you saw a survey of anyone under 18? Obviously, we don't trust them to say or think anything worthwhile because they're not adults, right? Call me corny for quoting the Monkees theme song but they had it right when they said "we're the young generation and we got something to say" (granted that they were a manufactured band like the Sex Pistols but they had some good songs). These li'l ones are gonna run all our lives one day, right?

Don't hold your breath waiting for a kiddie poll though. As a fan of their evening shows, I like the idea of Nickelodeon but for a less mediated experience of what's on the playground grapevine, you'll have to look for the likes of Eyeball Skeleton. The idea of a kiddie rock band isn't new- anyone remember Old Skull from the late '80s? But the Skeleton crew gets the playground ethic (at least the one I remember decades ago and seen since as a teacher) down pretty well- turtles, fish and apes vie with Cyclops, vampires, mummies and all the fun stuff that gets beaten out of our imagination by the time we hit high school.

Whether this band of pint-sized miscreants would pass would the imaginary, arbitrary litmus test of acceptable entertainment isn't known yet. On the surface, this seems harmless enough but shouldn't the right-to-life people be concerned about songs toasting the living dead? Ask yourself this- does the FCC and Congress serve these kids' best interest or their own self interest?


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