The V-Chip Americas Answer to Desensitizing On February 8, 1996, President Clinton1 signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 19962, which will dramatically alter the telecommunications industry over the next several years. One of the most controversial sections of the bill was Section 551, titled "Parental Choice in Television Programming," which calls for manufacturers to include a "V-chip" in every new TV set 13 inches or larger. The V-chip is a device that will enable viewers to program their televisions to block out content with a common rating. Proponents of the system say that it will enable parents to protect their children from viewing violent and explicit material. Opponents say it violates the First Amendment rights of the broadcasters, and enforces government censorship on the television industry. The provision gives broadcasters, cable operators, and other "video distributors" one year to develop a voluntary rating system for programming that contains "sexual, violent, or other indecent material." If the industry fails to agree on a rating system within that time, the FCC is to develop a rating system based on an advisory board's recommendations.16 The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 19903 required all new televisions sold in the United States to contain a chip to decode closed-captioning4 signals. The basic technology needed to implement the V-chip is the same as that currently used for closed-captioning. Program rating information would be transmitted along with the television signal, and be decoded by a chip in each television. The chip would then compare the rating codes to values preset by the viewer. If the rating codes are higher than the preset values, the television signal would be blocked, and a blank screen would be displayed. Closed-captioning data is transmitted on line 21 of the vertical blanking interval, or VBI5. The VBI consists of 24 lines of a regular picture scan in which the beam is turned "off" to return to the top of the screen before painting the next frame. These 24 lines represent "dead air" time, in which no image information is sent.5 Each line of the VBI is capable of transmitting 256 bits (32 bytes) of data. Since the VBI appears once per frame, or 30 times per second, this means that each line of the VBI is capable of sustaining a bit rate of 7680 bits per second.5 The tentative plan for implementing the V-chip is to add the program rating information to line 21 of the VBI, along with the closed-captioning information. The difficulty is that line 21 is also being used for newer "extended data services" (XDS) that will be capable of providing such things as scheduling information and station call letters to the viewers. Fitting all three of these data signals into the 7.68 kbps of line 21 is one of the primary difficulties in designing the V-chip implementation.12 The magnitude of the problem will be determined by the complexity of the rating system chosen by the broadcasters. If a relatively simple rating scheme is used, small modifications could be made to the existing closed-captioning decoders to receive the rating data and block the programs. This would require no change in the architecture of the televisions, and would be almost free of cost to install. Electronic Industries Association6 (EIA) engineer, Tom Mock, says that the existing closed-captioning chips have enough memory to support a system of up to three content categories, such as "sex", "violence", and "mature content," with four levels of blocking each.12 If the broadcasting industry selects a system of more complexity, it would be far more difficult to implement. Each television would require additional circuitry to handle the decoding of the ratings. This would mean that television designers would have to alter the internal layouts of the television components, adding up to $40 to the cost of the television, depending on the manufacturer and model of television.12 Similarly, line 21 of the VBI may not have enough available bandwidth to transmit the desired programming codes if they are too complex. This would cause a more drastic departure from the closed-captioning technology. Another line of the VBI would have to be used which could complicate things tremendously. The demand for use of the VBI is growing rapidly since it is a means of rapidly transmitting data to a large number of people. In British Columbia, the VBI is being used to transmit such things as weather forecasts and warnings, weather charts, and even satellite pictures.5 Since VBI space can be leased to companies wishing to provide information to the public, the television industry would be extremely reluctant to use additional space for non-profitable information such as rating codes. Not only would the additional VBI space be difficult to obtain, the televisions would need two full sets of decoder circuitry, one to decode the closed-captioning information on line 21, and separate circuitry to decode the rating information on a different line. It would cost more to manufacture the two sets of chips than simply one redesigned chip, and it would cost the television manufacturers more to redesign the architecture of their televisions to accommodate the additional circuitry. Therefore the additional costs per television may be well above the estimated $40. Most of the financial burden, however, would lie on the broadcasters. Not only would the televisions need new circuitry to receive the rating signals, the broadcasters would need to either upgrade their closed-captioning encoders or install new encoding equipment to generate the V-chip signals and insert them in the VBI. Phil McLaughlin, director of business development for EEG Enterprises, a manufacturer of VBI insertion equipment, says that the additional encoding equipment would probably cost the broadcasters around $5,000, plus another $1,000-$2,000 needed for a data-management computer.12 The most significant cost, however, would be in developing the infrastructure for transmitting the signals, both in personnel and in software. Most closed-captioned programs are encoded by the program producer, not the broadcaster, and the station simply passes the information through. Even if the rating information is delegated to the producers of the programs, to be added along with the closed-captioning signals, the broadcasters would be held accountable if a producer failed to rate their show. Therefore, the broadcast station would have to purchase encoders for live insertion of the rating information. This would entail considerable cost for the stations, for the new hardware and software for coding, as well as personnel to operate it.12 Even though the V-chip legislation has already been signed into law by the President, it remains at the heart of a heated political battle. The strongest objection raised to the V-chip by its opponents is that it violates the First Amendment Rights of the broadcasters. They claim that the government is imposing a system of censorship that will lead to "blander" and "less dramatic" television.14 Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who spearheaded the drive for the V-chip, argues that there is nothing in the legislation that limits the content of programs. He, and other supporters of the V-chip, say that the broadcasters will still be able to air any programming they wish. They will just have to accompany the programming with a rating that will help identify to parents the content of the programs. He emphasizes that it will be left to the parents to decide which programs they wish to view, not the government.11 Broadcast industry officials don't believe Markey's argument, however. NBC Executive Vice President and General Counsel Rick Cotton says that "NBC supports blocking technology for those viewers who want to block programming." The problem with the V-chip, he claims, is that it puts the government in control of the rating system.14 Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment Lawyer, was a little more blunt. He commented that "the V-chip is First Amendment-friendly the way Henry VIII was wife-friendly."13 Markey denies that the government will have control over the rating of programs. Broadcasters, he says, have exclusive responsibility for setting up a rating system and rating their programs. If the broadcasters fail to develop a rating system within one year, the legislation calls for a government advisory board to simply develop a set of categories for the ratings. At no time, however, will the advisory board, or any other governmental group, be in control of the rating of any programs.11 While the television industry has formally issued a statement7 stating their intent to develop a voluntary rating system8, there is certain to be a number of legal challenges to the V-chip provision. The ACLU, for one, has already issued a law suit9 challenging, in part, the constitutionality of the V-chip. The politicians who drafted the bill foresaw the inevitability of legal challenges, and added Section 561 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, titled, "Expedited Review." This section calls for the first challenge to go directly to a district court of three judges. Any appeal to the outcome will go directly to the Supreme Court. This is intended to prevent the implementation of the V-chip from being delayed for years while challenges go through the regular channels.2 Another complaint by the broadcasters is that there is simply too large of a volume of programs to rate all of them. As an example, they say that there are fewer than 600 movies that have to be rated each year15 by the Motion Picture Association of America10, while there are over 600,000 hours of cable programming that would have to be rated each year.8 Markey responds by pointing out that there are thousands of people working for the networks that go over every show with a fine toothed comb before it goes on the air. He says, therefore, that it "would defy explanation that they would be unable to give it some rating with regard to whether or not it's appropriate for a six-, seven-, or eight-year-old boy or girl."11 By delegating the task of rating shows to the networks, or even to the shows' producers, it eliminates the need for a single body to look at the whole mass of programs. Supporters of the V-chip say that its purpose is to give parents control over the level of violence and sexual material their children watch on television. Critics, however, claim that the ratings will be too broad. They would not be able to intelligently choose for themselves which shows are acceptable and which are not. Critics argue that many shows such as cartoons and even the news could potentially be classified as "violent" and be blocked. In response to this argument, news and sports programs will be exempt from the ratings requirements.8 This creates it's own problems, though. It will be difficult for officials to decide what qualifies as "news" or "sports." Tabloid shows such as "Hard Copy", for example, could be labeled as either news or entertainment. Many shows will try to avoid ratings by claiming exemption as either a news or sports show. Another one of the biggest concerns of V-chip opponents is that it would cause broadcasters to lose money since many advertisers would not pay for time in a show that might be blocked from millions of households. This would eventually cause the networks to drop highly rated shows in favor of "blander" fare which will attract more advertiser revenue.15 Supporters agree that advertisers will avoid highly rated shows, and that networks will eventually drop them in favor of lower rated, more profitable shows. Many supporters, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), claim that as a sort of victory, rather than a drawback. Dole has castigated the entertainment industry for producing bloody, sex-filled "nightmares of depravity," and said that the V-chip legislation is "welcome news, as far as it goes."8 Even though the V-chip has been signed into law, there are still tremendous hurdles it must pass before it appears in television sets. First, the broadcasters have to design a rating standard that the government will accept. This will not be an easy task. If the ratings scheme is too simple, it will not be very useful to parents. They will be unable to lock out the programs they intend without the ones they wish to keep. Many parents would therefore opt simply not to use the chip at all. If the rating standard is too complex, many parents will not take the time to figure it out, and will also choose to not use the chip. There will therefore be a difficult balance between a simple system that is accessible to most of the public, and one that is thorough enough to be of use. The chosen rating system will also have a large impact on the difficulty of the technical design of the V-chip. The engineers are at a disadvantage because they can not even begin serious design until they know how complex the rating system will be. If broadcasters take several months to agree on a rating systems, it will be extremely difficult to design and implement the system by the 1997 deadline. The last major hurdle the V-chip has to clear is the battery of legal challenges it is sure to face. Designers are reluctant to devote time and resources to designing a system that may be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Since the court decision is not likely to come until near the deadline for full implementation, however, designers will simply have to gamble their funds that the system will be approved. Both sides agree that the V-chip is bound to have an impact on the type of programming offered. Cable channels are unlikely to change much, since they are not advertiser funded, but network television will be forced to rely on sitcoms and other "inoffensive" programming. While some believe this is a good thing, others worry that viewers will turn to cable channels, and network programming will lose its audience, and therefore its advertiser funding. The true effect on the future of the networks will not be clear until many years after the V-chip is implemented. Many people simply dismiss the whole effort as largely a political maneuver. They claim that it will not make any noticeable difference in the content of television programming children are exposed to. The same parents who are concerned enough to program the V-chip are the ones who already monitor what their children watch. Parents who already allow their children uncontrolled access to the television are not likely to bother learning to program their V-chips. There would seem to be a lot of validity to this argument. It will be impossible to tell for sure how much of a difference the V-chip will make until enough time has passed for it to make it into a large fraction of homes.
Bibliography:
Reference Links (Also linked within the document) 1) President Clinton's Statement On Signing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 2) Telecommunications Act of 1996 3) Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 4) Closed-Captioning FAQ 5) VBI Information 6) Electronic Industries Association 7) TV Industry Statement on the V-Chip 8) Broadcasters Commit to Implementing a Rating System 9) ACLU Law Suit 10) Motion Picture Association of America Paper References 11) "Why the Markey Chip Won't Hurt You," Broadcasting & Cable, August 14, 1995, pp 10-15. 12) Dickson, Glen, "How's It Work?" Broadcasting & Cable, February 12, 1996, p 24. 13) McConville, Jim, "V-Chip Battle Gets N.Y. Preview," Broadcasting & Cable, February 12, 1996, p 8. 14) Stern, Christopher, "Broadcasters Plotting V-Chip Legal Strategy," Broadcasting & Cable, February 12, 1996, p 23. 15) Stern, Christopher, "The V-Chip First Amendment Infringement vs. Empowerment Tool," Broadcasting & Cable, February 12, 1996, pp 20-21. 16) "V-Chip: A Matter of Law," Broadcasting & Cable, February 12, 1996, p 21.

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