Dave Barry

Classic '96: The idiot box


President Clinton holds a V-chip at the Library of Congress in Washington Thursday Feb. 8, 1996 where he signed the Telecommunications Reform Act.
President Clinton holds a V-chip at the Library of Congress in Washington Thursday Feb. 8, 1996 where he signed the Telecommunications Reform Act. AP FILE PHOTO

This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, March 24, 1996.

The V-chip. A helpful tool for concerned parents? A threat to the First Amendment? An excuse for sentences without verbs?

These are some of the questions raised by the recently passed federal law that will require new television sets to contain a little computer thing called a V-chip (the "V" stands for "Some word that begins with 'V' ").

I bet I know what your reaction was when you heard about the V-chip. You said: "If the government is going to force TV manufacturers to do something, why not force them to get rid of all those confusing controls and go back to having just two big, easy-to-operate knobs, one for the volume and one for the channel, the way it was on the icebox-sized black-and-white RCA Victor TV that my family had when I was a boy growing up in the 1950s in Armonk, N.Y., watching Ed Sullivan present accordion- playing bears?"

That was my reaction, too. But the V-chip is not designed to make your television easier to operate. The V-chip is a sincere effort by Congress to enable concerned Americans -- Americans exactly like you, only less intelligent -- to imagine that  Congress has actually done something about TV violence and smut.

Violence and smut are of course everywhere on the airwaves. You cannot turn on your television without seeing them, although sometimes you have to hunt around. But it's there, all right, even during the daytime -- a constant, sleazy stream of near- naked bodies, their taut flesh glistening with sweat as they thrust forward, then back, then forward, again and again, until finally, in an explosive climactic outpouring, they reveal the cost of whatever miracle home exercise contraption they are selling at that particular instant. Naturally, it renders all the OTHER home-exercise contraptions, including whichever one they were selling LAST week, totally obsolete. And of course if we buy the new one, we will -- With almost no effort! It's fun! -- look EXACTLY like the perfect-bodied people in the commercial. They say so themselves!

PERFECT-BODIED MAN: Kandi, how long have you been using the incredible Squee-Zer-Ciser with the revolutionary new Iso-Flex Modular Torsion Units, which look to the untrained eye like rubber bands, but are actually scientific?

PERFECT-BODIED WOMAN: About a week, Brad! Before using the Squee-Zer-Ciser for only three minutes per day, I was so fat that the fire department routinely rescued people from burning buildings by having them jump onto my butt! Now I'm dating Antonio Banderas!

I'll tell you what: If Congress really wants to help American TV viewers, it should require that every exercise- contraption commercial end with this announcement:

"WARNING -- The Surgeon General has determined that you will use this contraption maybe twice, after which it will disappear forever under a stack of old TV Guides. Also, no matter WHAT you do, you're basically stuck with your genetically determined body type, as is evidenced by the Surgeon General's commander-in-chief, who has jogged 300 million miles since taking office and still has thighs like Twinkie-filled pontoons."

Speaking of President Clinton: He also supports the V-chip, which as some of you may recall is the topic of this column. Here's how it will work:

(1) Every TV program will be rated for both violence and smut, even those Saturday-morning programs that consist entirely of men in baseball caps catching bass. So if they merely catch the bass, that would get a low rating; but if they were to commit an act of violence with the bass, or for some perverted reason slip the bass inside their wading pants, that would get a higher rating. The ratings will be published, thereby insuring that . . .

(2) . . . millions of young people will try to tune into the programs containing the most violence and smut; however . . . 

(3) . . . the V-chip inside the TV will constantly monitor the incoming signals, and the instant it detects anything obscene, such as a naked breast or Sen. Jesse Helms, it will automatically switch to a channel showing wholesome educational programming, such as a nature documentary about eels, unless of course . . .

(4) . . . it turns out that eels have naked breasts, in which case the V-chip will show commercials for competing long- distance telephone companies until the young people are driven, screaming, from the room.

Clearly, the V-chip is a good idea -- such a good idea, in fact, that we in the newspaper industry have voluntarily decided to adopt it. That's right: There's a tiny V-chip installed in the page you're reading right now! So if I try to write a smutty phrase such as "XXXX," or "XXXX-XXXX," or "get a load of the XXXX on that XXXX," the offensive parts are automatically deleted. The same goes for violence: Whole entire stories on Bosnia will be missing. That's how concerned we are about this XXXX issue.