It's a simple little device that fits inside the TV set and would, when activated, prevent children from watching programs that their parents don't want them to.
What could be wrong with that?
A lot, according to the broadcast television industry, which sees the specter of Big Brother in the federal government's proposal to give parents greater power in controlling the levels of violence, sexuality and adult language that pour into their homes.
Therein lies the problem with the legislation that Congress is on the brink of passing: The so-called "V-chip" technology won't work if the television industry does not want it to.
And the industry definitely does not--at least, the major broadcast networks don't. Network executives say their 1st Amendment rights are in danger of being trampled by lawmakers who are afraid to address the real issues behind violence in society.
The networks have historically ducked behind the durable shield of the Constitution when their freedoms have been threatened. But this time, they face a firing squad of unrelenting and bipartisan critics who will not go away.
Ratings Key Issue
President Clinton leads an overwhelming majority of lawmakers who want the V-chip; they say it is the advertising revenue that the networks are worried about losing. Eighty-two percent of Americans want it, according to a poll conducted in July for an industry trade publication, the Hollywood Reporter. Even the cable industry has reluctantly agreed to it--provided the broadcasters go along.
But the broadcast industry fiercely refuses to rate the voluminous amount of TV programming it runs. Rating systems work for motion pictures, video games and the pay cable networks HBO and Showtime, broadcasters say, because consumers make the choice whether to view or purchase an individual program or product.
Not necessarily so with the V-chip, which would have the power to automatically block out hundreds of entertainment programs a week. The legislation proposed by Congress would require all new TV sets 13 inches and larger to be fitted with special circuitry to block out coded programs with the push of a button. Then, if the TV industry agreed to use such codes, parents would program the V-chip to filter out shows based on a universal ratings system embedded in the broadcast signal.
"The V-chip doesn't do anything in and of itself," said David Westin, president of the ABC Television Network Group. "There must be some person who looks at a show and makes a judgment on that show. When you do that, you're well on your way to censorship."
Different versions of the V-chip amendment have been approved by the House and Senate. A joint negotiating committee is merging and finessing the two versions to avoid censorship issues. The legislation is part of a sweeping telecommunications reform bill that will likely reach President Clinton before year's end.
"The broadcasters have a very thin argument here," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who sponsored the Senate legislation. "They think the best thing they can do is try to misrepresent what the issue is in order to kill it. Why do they want to kill it? It has nothing to do with censorship or anything else. It's economics. They made very clear to me the thing they're concerned about is that it will put them at an economic disadvantage compared to the cable industry."
The broadcast networks do fear that advertisers will avoid programs with questionable ratings because a percentage of viewers will lock them out with the V-chip, creating a form of "economic censorship." That prospect isn't as troubling to the cable networks, which derive only a part of their income from commercials. Unlike broadcasters, they also receive money from the local cable companies that distribute their programming.
Believing his network will not be able to compete with cable in such an uneven marketplace, Martin Franks, senior vice president for CBS Inc., says he will see the matter in court before he agrees to a ratings system. "I suspect this issue really doesn't end until the Supreme Court makes a definitive ruling," he said. "I suspect some people are not going to rest until the Supreme Court either says regulating content is unconstitutional or it isn't."
Under the Senate version of the V-chip legislation, approved by a landslide vote in June, the TV industry would have a year to devise a ratings system. If the industry fails to meet the deadline, the government would appoint an independent board to create the categories and standards that it wanted the industry to use.
Panicked by what they considered Draconian measures, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox tried to head off similar V-chip legislation in the House. Hoping to sway voters, the networks in July announced a $2-million fund to spur the development of their own voluntary viewer discretion technology for parents, one that does not require ratings.
Representatives were not convinced, though, and the House's V-chip amendment passed a few days later.