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Chaining the Channels : A New Generation of Television Blocking Systems Allows More Options for Parents Seeking to Control Kids' Viewing


Ruth Taggart worried that her children, Christian, 12, and Justina, 16, watched too much television.

So last spring the Torrance single parent bought TV Allowance, a device resembling a desktop calculator and costing about $100, that limits TV time to nine hours a week for each child.

Parents preset the machine, giving each child an access number and entering the number of hours of TV watching allowed. When time's up, the child's number won't turn on the set. The parent has an override code number.

"It works great," says Ruth Taggart. "I think the biggest result is that they think about something they really want to watch. They don't just turn it on to have noise in the house."

"It's hard to watch a whole football game because it zaps out half your time," says Christian, a TV sports fanatic who will enter seventh grade this fall. "It's hard to juggle with Sega games, sports programs and regular shows. But I managed after the first couple of weeks."

Justina, a high-school junior, is less enthused.

"I don't really like it a whole lot," she says. "A lot of times when I want to watch a certain show, I can't because I want to watch others. It's kind of good because I have time to do other things. I've been doing a lot more reading."

TV Allowance is one version of the television blocking systems advocated in recent weeks by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, which is holding hearings on television violence.

Markey proposes legislation--dubbed the V-Chip Bill--that would require network and cable signals to carry a "V" code before a violent program starts; all new televisions could be equipped with a computer chip that when activated would black out the show when the "V" was broadcast.

In Markey's bill, the television industry would establish criteria for rating TV violence. The chip costs less than $1 a set, he says. (All televisions 13 inches or larger are already equipped with similar technology since Congress required, effective in June, that sets contain a microprocessor to receive closed captioning for the deaf.)

It's unclear what would happen on screen when a program was blocked, a spokesman for Markey says, but when a channel is blocked in other systems an on-screen message explains the situation.

Most existing technology can block only a whole channel, for example the Playboy Channel. With these systems, "basically you identify a channel or a number of channels, assign them some kind of code through the remote control, and instruct the TV not to display that channel," says Evon Beckford, head of the Consumers Union research group, which evaluated 1993 televisions for Consumer Reports. The research report lists several manufacturers that have equipped TVs with channel-blocking devices, but the equipment is available almost exclusively on expensive, large-screen models.

Like channel blockers, TV Allowance has a limited function, setting only the number of hours a child watches but not what is viewed. However, the future may hold more options for parents who want to control their televisions electronically.

Joseph N. Jackson, chairman of Protelcon, a small Marina del Rey firm, testified before the House subcommittee about his TeleCommander, a device he plans to manufacture.

"We decided to broaden areas of management for a parent," says Protelcon president Jim Brian. The TeleCommander will allow parents a number of choices in addition to limiting watching hours and blocking channels. With the free-standing device, which looks like a cable box, parents can block out specific time frames--for example homework hours on school nights--and block specific programs.

In addition to its "negative" use, there's a positive function, Brian says. The family can sit down together and select favorites the children are allowed to watch and program the TeleCommander to show only those programs.

The company plans to have a production model of the device in about six weeks and hopes to be ready to manufacture by December. The retail price will be in the $79-$89 range, Brian says.

He also points out that the circuitry, which the company hopes to license to television and VCR manufacturers and cable companies, only costs about $10--so installing it would not significantly increase the consumer prices of TVs or cable services.

In another system, TV Guide on Screen of Denver is test-marketing a satellite system based on Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings. The software produces a list of upcoming shows on the subscriber's TV screen, and the parent can use the remote control to zap rated movies they don't want their kids to see. The system costs about $1 a month, says company president Bruce Davis.

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