In an attempt to give parents more control over television content, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated a change in the way new televisions sold in the United States would be manufactured. The act provided that within a specified time period (the deadline eventually becoming January 2000) all televisions with a diagonal screen size of thirteen inches or larger would contain technology permitting the blocking of programs on the basis of their ratings. This legislation was passed during a time when criticism of television content was increasing and there were several well-publicized incidents of youth violence that were variously attributed to the influence of television. Members of Congress, with leadership from Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), were seeking to provide parents with a way to deal with increasingly violent and sexual content without infringing on the First Amendment rights of the television industry.
Although devices permitting the blocking of television programs had been developed in the United States as early as the mid-1980s, the notion of television program blocking first entered the mainstream of public consciousness as the result of developments in Canada. In the early 1990s, Tim Collings, a professor of electrical engineering at Simon Fraser University, developed a television blocking device that he called the V-chip. Although the "V" in V-chip originally referred to "viewer" choice, the "V" has come to be associated in the United States with media violence in the minds of the general public.
The V-chip legislation did not mandate a specific rating system. However, it specified that if the television industry did not voluntarily produce its own rating system acceptable to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the FCC would appoint an advisory committee to recommend a V-chip rating system. The television industry developed the age-based "TV Parental Guidelines," which it released in December 1996. It then modified the system, as the result of public and political pressure, to add content indicators in July 1997. The rating system is designed to be applied to all forms of programming, with the exception of news and sports programs. The rating of a program is selected by that program's producers or distributors.
The V-chip works by reading a code that is embedded in the transmission of a program and is carried on line 21 of the vertical blanking interval (VBI), the same circuits that are also used to carry information for the closed captioning of programs. In addition to ruling on the acceptability of the rating system, the FCC had to approve a technical standard for the V-chip. Two issues regarding the design of the V-chip proved controversial.
The first issue was related to whether the V-chip would be mandated to read only the rating systems developed by the entertainment indus-try—the TV Parental Guidelines and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) movie ratings—or whether it should be required to include other rating systems that might be developed by child advocacy groups, religious groups, or other organizations. Child advocacy groups favored the inclusion of more rating systems so that ratings might be based on criteria developed by child development experts, for example, and applied by people other than those who had a financial interest in the programs being rated. Some free-speech advocates also promoted the capability of reading multiple systems, arguing that providing a government-sanctioned rating system is more coercive than permitting viewers a choice among rating systems. The entertainment industry argued for limiting the V-chip to the two systems developed by the industry, saying that to do otherwise would render the device overly complicated and unworkable. The FCC ultimately ruled that only the TV Parental Guidelines and the MPAA ratings would be mandatory. It did require, however, that the technology permit parents to block programs by both the age-based and content-based categories of the revised TV Parental Guidelines.
The second issue was related to whether or not the V-chip would permit parents to block unrated programs as well as blocking programs on the basis of their ratings. Because news and sports are not rated, and because it was anticipated that some producers or channels might choose not to rate their programs, child advocacy groups argued that blocking of unrated programs should also be a feature of the V-chip. Advocates for the television industry argued that the ability to block unrated programs would make television ratings mandatory rather than optional and that it could, in effect, result in the blocking of entire channels that were devoted solely to news or sports. The FCC did not require the V-chip to have the ability to block unrated programs. In response to consumer sentiment, however, some manufacturers decided to include this feature in spite of the fact that it is not required.
New television sets are shipped with the V-chip in the "off" mode. Parents may decide to use the V-chip by selecting which ratings they want blocked. Programs with these ratings will subsequently not be seen or heard on the television, unless someone chooses to override the blocking. The override is typically accomplished by entering a secret code number. In many sets, the channels that were blocked prior to the override return to the blocked mode after the television set is turned off. Many television sets provide other blocking features, independent of the V-chip, including the blocking of specific channels or the blocking of programs that occur at specific dates and times. Some systems also allow programs to be blocked by title.
Although hailed as a breakthrough by politicians and parenting organizations, the V-chip was not readily adopted by parents when it first became available. The slow adoption has been attributed to several factors. One is the lack of publicity for the V-chip and the understandable reluctance of the television industry to promote a product designed to limit its reach. Another factor is the complicated nature of the revised TV Parental Guidelines. Perhaps another impediment has been public perception that the V-chip is a crutch for lazy parents rather than a tool to help concerned parents more conveniently implement their decisions about what their children should watch.
In May 1999, the FCC set up a task force to ensure the effective implementation of the V-chip. This group has issued reports on the progress of the television industry with regard to the encoding of V-chip rating signals in programming and has encouraged publicity and promotion for the device.
See also:Antiviolence Interventions; Federal Communications Commission; Ratings for Television Programs; Telecommunications Act of 1996; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence In the Media, History of Research On.
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Cantor, Joanne. (1998). "Ratings for Program Content: The Role of Research Findings." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557:54-69.
Kaiser Family Foundation. (1999). How Parents Feel (and What They Know) about TV, the V-Chip, and the TV Ratings System. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Kunkel, Dale; Farinola, Wendy J. M.; Cope, Kirstie M.; Donnerstein, Edward; Biely, Erica; and Zwarun, Lara. (1998). Rating the Ratings: One Year Out; An Assessment of the Television Industry's Use of V-Chip Ratings. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
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