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Indecency Feud Could Bring V Back to TVs

A chip that blocks some shows never became popular. In a flash, its time may have come.

March 22, 2004|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH SURREY, Canada — Inside the book-lined study of his orderly, wisteria-draped Tudor, Tim Collings rummages around his desk until he finds it -- the half-inch square of wired black plastic labeled "V." This is the apparatus that once generated wild praise from politicians, rampant fear of lost ratings and stifled free speech among broadcasters, and a glimmer of hope that technology could help save children from violence on the airwaves.

Now, eight years after Congress adopted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, about 80 million of America's 275 million television sets have one. But it's not easy to find anyone, outside of trivia contestants, who knows what a V-chip is. Rarer still are those who can actually make one work.

"Almost everyone has it. Almost nobody uses it," says Dave Arland, a spokesman for Thomson/RCA, a leading manufacturer of state-of-the-art television sets. Researcher Amy Jordan of the University of Pennsylvania calls it a "multi-system failure." Some TV manuals have nine pages of instruction for the chip. Yet your local neighborhood electronics retailer is rarely motivated to mention it as part of his standard sales spiel.

Nevertheless, like the nearly forgotten artifact uncovered among Collings' pens and papers, the V-chip is back, in a big way -- part of the still snowballing reaction to a certain Super Bowl halftime dance.

Faced with the prospect of million-dollar fines for broadcast indecency and threats of license revocation after three strikes, broadcasters are suddenly embracing the device they once feared would turn viewers away from programs labeled violent or racy.

A "massive spate of public education" is underway to raise the low number of V-chip users (estimated three years ago at 7% of all parents), says Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), an original supporter of the V-chip. "There was an initial flurry of public education on the V-chip when it was initially introduced, but then it died down. This incident gives us a chance to significantly increase the number of families who use it," he says.

The renewed attention brings Collings a sense of deja vu. He can't help but notice that the V-chip and the ratings were adopted in 1996, an election year like this one. "It would be too bad if it's just a political thing," he says.

But Collings, 42, likes to look on the bright side of things. "It just might [be that] this time around," he says, "it will be taken a bit more seriously than it was to begin with."

He started paying attention to the cultural power of television in 1989 after 14 Montreal university students were gunned down by a man whose apartment was later found to contain violent videos. Then 27, Collings took the tragedy as a call to action. Rather than joining an activist group, he decided to work with the university to develop and market a software program that he later patented.

Collings designed the chip to help parents filter out objectionable programs automatically, using a ratings system. The two-tier ratings aim to assess age-appropriateness (such as TV-Y for young children and TV-MA for mature adults) and content (such as V for violence, S for sexual situations and L for language). The ratings, set by the networks for their own products, usually precede the shows or are included in listings.

Using the ratings, parents can program the controls on their sets to block shows they might find undesirable. However, the V-chip doesn't allow for context, and does not rate news or sports. So unless a set had been programmed to block all unrated shows, the V-chip system wouldn't have been able to detect or filter out Janet Jackson's breast flash during the Super Bowl halftime show.

Certainly, the renaissance of Collings' chip comes amid a changed climate: The number of cable channels has exploded, media companies have consolidated and grown more powerful, and networks compete fiercely not just with one another but with the freewheeling, envelope-pushing fare on cable. New technologies -- like TiVo and other digital video recorders -- offer greater at-home control. All things considered, "the era of passive television is gone," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell said last month.

Even before the Super Bowl, FCC commissioners were coping with complaints that television had become more graphic, coarse and raunchy.

"The media feels it can act with a certain level of impunity. What's happened is there's a backlash, not only from the public, but it's backed up to congressional representatives saying this is out of control," says Andy Davis, spokesman for Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Hollings is seeking a new study of the V-chip and the content ratings. If the one-time study proves the V-chip is not effective, the FCC would be required to restrict violent as well as indecent programming to times when children are less likely to be watching -- 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

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