The V Chip

.. ams, 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.

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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 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. Current Events.