The second coming of the V-Chip

The controversial 1990s sex- and violence-blocking tech ended up largely ignored. Will a version for digital TV tuners fare better?

For all the hubbub about the sex- and violence-blocking V-Chip in the late 1990s, it's hard to find someone today who actually uses it to filter out television programs.

It's been 10 years since Congress required television makers to include the V-Chip in their TVs as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It's been six years since all televisions 13 inches or larger were required to include a V-Chip. But a 2004 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2004 found that only 15 percent of parents have ever used the V-Chip. The Ad Council put the usage figures even lower--at 8 percent.

Though it's difficult to find more recent data, most experts figure V-Chip usage hasn't changed much. And few expect that to change following a March 15, 2006, deadline that required television makers to include a second generation of the chip in digital TVs.

The new V-Chip isn't really a chip. It's software that blocks programs that stray outside a ratings boundary set by the television user. The new technology is designed to accommodate changes in the ratings standards used by broadcasters to rate their content. The analog V-Chip was designed for the technology used to communicate the ratings when the technical standard was drawn up in the late 1990s.

The new V-Chip standard is set to arrive as the U.S. is making the forced march to digital television, said Tim Collings, director of research and development for TriVision, a Canadian company that owns patents for both V-Chip technologies. On March 1, 2007, all televisions and set-top boxes will be required to have digital tuners, and therefore will need the new version of the V-Chip.

To promote the new V-chip, the Ad Council is preparing a renewed advertising campaign for later this year. But if parents today are blocking content from reaching their children, most appear to be using the TV's power-off button rather than chip technology.

The new V-Chip technology works by decoding ratings data transmitted along with the signal and then blocking content above a certain rating, such as TV-14 for content deemed unsuitable for children under the age of 14, or TV-MA for content deemed appropriate for mature audiences only. Using a password-protected screen reached from the menu of V-Chip-equipped TVs, parents can set boundaries for the type of content or channels their children can view.

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As of March, new TVs with digital tuners must include a new open version of the V-Chip, according to an FCC representative. The new chip can respond to the current ratings systems used by broadcasters as well as new ratings systems from various family organizations such as the Parents Television Council or Common Sense Media. This will also allow parents to set their preferences for acceptable levels of sexuality or violence in television programs and have shows that meet those guidelines sent directly to them.

By next year, that requirement will extend to all devices capable of receiving a digital television signal, including set-top boxes and DVD players. That sets up a nice revenue stream for TriVision, which holds patents to the technology needed to implement the V-Chip in the way specified by the government. TriVision's software costs TV manufacturers about $1 to $1.25 per set, the FCC representative said.

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