I want to start by thanking the Kaiser foundation
for the work you've done not only on today's report, but on making
these issues of media and family a part of the national conversation.
This is a subject many of us come to not as politicians
or policy makers, as but as parents most of all.
Because it's one thing to discuss sex and violence
on television within the larger context of the culture wars - as
a values debate between First Amendment crusaders and those who
believe government should decide what we can and cannot watch -
but it's a another thing altogether to be faced with these issues
while you're sitting in front of the TV with your child.
I watch with my daughters, Sasha and Malia, and
I can tell you that when we're in the middle of a family program
and a commercial for Cialis comes on, it's more than troubling to
find yourself wondering how you'll explain certain medical conditions
that last longer than three hours to a four-year-old and a seven-year-old.
From the time they're young, we try to instill in
our children a sense of what's right and wrong; a sense of what's
important, of what's worth striving for. As best we can, we also
try to shield them from the harsher elements of life, and introduce
them to the realities of adulthood at the appropriate age.
But the concern shared by so many parents today
- a concern that frankly hasn't been taken seriously enough by some
on the left - is that raising your children this way has become
exceedingly difficult in a mass media culture that saturates our
airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence, and materialism.
Revolutions in information and technology over the
last few decades have caused this stream to grow exponentially,
as we're bombarded at every turn with sounds and images from DVDs,
iPods, video games, and websites that we can't always control.
At the center of it all sits the television, which
still consumes the vast majority of our media use - even more so
for our children. And as we're spending more free time immersed
in this media culture, the amount of questionable content spilling
across our screens is growing by the year.
Still, it's important for us to realize that the
real problem we're facing is not simply one of quantity, or even
the existence of sex and violence in the media per se.
After all, the adult content in Schindler's List
is far different from the type on Desperate Housewives, and the
violence in Saving Private Ryan is not the same as the kind our
kids try to imitate in some of the most popular video games.
Rather, as your study today demonstrates, the larger
concern here is one of message; it's what the media is teaching
our kids about what is ok and what is not; about how to treat others
and how to treat themselves.
It's a concern that mass media is contributing to
an overall coarsening of our culture.
That with all the time our children are spending
in front of the television, with all the choices they have to see
whatever they want whenever they want, the content of their viewing
is not enriching their minds, but numbing them; not broadening intellectual
curiosity or appreciation for the arts, but trivializing the important
and desensitizing us to the tragic.
It may seem to some that the effect on our children
has been overstated. But the studies coming in from the NIH and
others show that the connection is real. When children are exposed
to sex without consequences, they're more likely to have it.
When they are shown the risks and responsibilities
that go along with sex, at least one major subgroup - African-American
youth - are more likely to abstain. Mindless violence and macho
aggression on television begets the same behavior in our kids. And
when eighty percent of African-American teens in a city like Washington
think that they'll be rich and over half think they'll be famous,
it hurts to hear them say that the path to success lies with the
hoop dreams and rap careers glorified on television.
We don't teach our children that healthy relationships
involve drunken, naked parties in a hot tub with strangers - but
that's what they see when they turn on The Real World. We don't
teach them to express their anger by seeing how much blood they
can draw with a round of ammo - but that's what they learn in the
most popular video games. And we don't teach our kids that the height
of success is inheriting a family fortune to buy Gucci bags without
ever working a serious day in your life - but that's how Paris Hilton
gets by on The Simple Life. You can say that kids know this isn't
real, but when they're fed a steady diet of these depictions over
and over again from the time they're very young, this behavior becomes
acceptable - even normal.
So what do we do about this? What do we do when
bad television becomes the enemy of good parenting?
We start by turning off the TV altogether. Our children
now spend an average of three hours a day in front of the television
- for African-American children, it's four hours. Two out of every
three households have the TV on during meals.
This is too much - period. And so I think it would
help if parents start setting down stricter rules on how much TV
their kids watch and limit their hours. I know this is difficult.
At the end of a long day, when Michelle and I are tired, it's easy
to just sit the kids in front of the television and relax.
But I think that as parents, we have an obligation
to our children to turn off the TV, pick up a book, and read to
them more often.
Beyond that, when our kids do watch television,
we should be watching it with them - this means finding programming
that everyone can watch as a family and being there to answer any
questions it may raise with our kids.
Now, at a time when both parents are more likely
to work longer hours outside the home, this is a lot easier said
than done. We try to compete with these media messages, but it's
nearly impossible to be there every moment our kids are watching
And so there's a broader responsibility here.
We know that with the pervasiveness of mass media
today - the existence of so many means of communication that are
so easily accessible all over the world - it's very difficult to
regulate our way out of this problem. And for those of us who value
our First Amendment freedoms - who value artistic expression - we
wouldn't want to.
But that doesn't mean we have to accept this coarsening
of our culture.
Decades ago, when television was still in its infancy,
we provided broadcasters free use of the public airwaves, which
they were to operate as trustees for the public. And just last week,
the Senate voted to set a final date for the transition to digital
Today, we need to make it clear that the free use
of the public airwaves continues to come with certain specific obligations.
But we also need to make it clear that for both broadcasters and
their competitors there are larger civic obligations to the American
public. Obligations to reflect not the basest elements of American
culture, but the profound and the proud.
Obligations to seek not just the quick buck or the
bottom line, but healthy discussion and debate in the public square
of the information age. Obligations to our children; to our families.
Today, we have far more choice in what we watch
than we could have ever imagined - more channels and more programming.
As we move further into the digital age, the transformation of entertainment
will be even more dramatic than the one from stage to screen.
And yet, with all these new choices for consumers,
there has been remarkably little done to give parents the tools
and the information necessary to make their own informed choices
about what their children are watching.
This is what the industry must do today. As we move
towards a digital environment, there is a golden opportunity for
them to do it on their own - to use the latest in technology to
give parents more information and more choice.
For example, this technology could make it possible
for parents to create their own family tier just by programming
their television to block certain channels, block certain genres
of programming like dramas, or block television at certain times
of the day. There's no reason the industry can't make it as easy
to find family-friendly television as it is to program TiVo.
But if the industry fails to act - if it fails to
give parents advanced controls and new choices - Congress will.
I know that Senator Stevens and Senator Inouye are
putting pressure on both broadcasters and cable companies to do
a better job fighting indecency, and I'm fully behind their efforts
to get the industry to change. I also applaud their announcement
that they will be convening a summit on these issues with the goal
of achieving immediate, meaningful reforms.
But I'd like to outline some additional reforms
that I think can make a difference for parents today.
First, parents should be able to get better information
right away - by improving the voluntary rating system we currently
have. Right now, our television ratings involve nothing more than
a tiny box containing some letters and numbers that flashes in the
upper left-hand corner of the screen for a few seconds at the beginning
of each program. It's hard to understand and easy to miss. Broadcasters
must improve this system to include a full-screen, detailed rating
that gives parents a more precise understanding of exactly what
content will be shown in the program.
They must also ensure that promos for horror movies
and ads for the show Las Vegas aren't being shown in the middle
of a cartoon or a family sitcom with a more restrictive rating.
Beyond simply blocking out negative messages, however,
we also know from Kaiser's studies that television has the power
to promote positive messages that can influence behavior and raise
Public service announcements have actually led to
reductions in teen pregnancy, and we should all be proud of the
media initiative undertaken by the Kaiser Foundation with Viacom,
BET, UPN and other networks to eradicate ignorance about HIV and
There has been a long debate about what obligations
broadcasters will have to the public in this new digital age. The
FCC took a first step in defining these obligations by requiring
that broadcasters air children's educational programming on all
their digital streams.
As they continue this process, the FCC must make
sure they spell out these obligations before the transition to digital
programming is complete.
When they do this, they need to make sure that broadcasters
have a concrete obligation to provide public service announcements
at times when people can actually see them, as well as better coverage
of elections. They should donate the public service time to a third-party
like the Ad Council that works with reputable non-profits. If they
do not do this, Congress should.
In addition, we should also fight to prevent any
attempt to gut funding or support for the Public Broadcasting System
- positive television with educational messages that generations
of children have been raised on.
Finally, there's current legislation out there that
would promote further studies - like this one - which would study
the effects of media on the health and development of our children.
This will provide parents with even more information, it's got bipartisan
support in Congress, and I think it's a good idea to pursue.
In Newton Minow's famous "Vast Wasteland"
speech to the National Association of Television Broadcasters, he
told them that,
"It is not enough to cater to the nation's
whims - you must also serve the nation's needs."
Four decades later, we find ourselves immersed in
a mass media culture that is at once more vast and more wasteful
than ever before. And so once again, we find ourselves asking those
in charge to serve the needs of a nation that has a higher calling
than simply peddling indecency and materialism for profit. We don't
have to accept what we see today as inevitable. We can all work
together to make media a place where big ideas and great debates
are communicated. We owe this much to ourselves, and we certainly
owe it to our children. Thank you.