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?

Tech Culture
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.

While TriVision will get paid either way, it's still unclear whether people actually use this technology to protect their children from "Sex and the City" reruns or "South Park" episodes.

Many parents simply don't know they already have technology to block programs based on ratings, according to Kaiser's 2004 report "Parents, Media, and Public Policy: A Kaiser Family Foundation Survey" (Click here for PDF).

People who have used the V-Chip to block content find it useful, according to the survey. Of the parents who know they have it but haven't used it, 60 percent say it's because they watch television with their children or are close enough when their kids are watching TV to take control of a wayward channel surfer.

The major broadcast networks comply with the V-Chip program by voluntarily rating their content, but critics say they don't do a very good job promoting the use of the technology. Under the recommended links on its home page CBS has a broken link to a "V-Chip Info" site maintained by the Ad Council. An FAQ on ABC's site says "Information pertaining to V-Chip technology is available at ABC's V-Chip Web site," but there's no link to that site. The only easy way to find V-Chip information on NBC's site is to search for it. And Fox, like CBS, has a broken link.

Tim Winters, executive director of the Parents Television Council, said the networks don't really want the V-Chip or the ratings systems but are obligated to come up with something as the result of pressure from the Federal Communications Commission.

One of the reasons people don't use the V-Chip is because it doesn't really work, Winters argued. Networks are reluctant to deem content inappropriate for certain audiences because it scares away advertisers, he said. So the ratings can be inaccurate, which frustrates parents looking to block content.

Kaiser's research indicated that 39 percent of parents feel television shows aren't rated accurately. A CBS representative declined to comment, and representatives for ABC, NBC, and Fox did not return calls seeking comment.

"What I see is a solution that's flawed at every level. Conceptually, it's not bad, but practically, it's abhorrent," Winters said.

The Ad Council is planning to launch a new ad campaign this summer to educate parents on the technology. The V-Chip is helpful for parents who can't always monitor their children's viewing habits, but nothing replaces watching television with children or having discussions with them about TV choices, Ellyn Fisher, an Ad Council spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

That is, unless you'd prefer someone else make those choices for you. Sixty-three percent of the respondents to Kaiser's survey favored government regulation that would "limit the amount of sex and violence in TV shows during the early evening hours, when children are most likely to be watching."

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