The Vchip

The V-Chip On February 8, 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which dramatically altered 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.

Even though the President has already signed the V-chip legislation into law, 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. 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. Broadcasters respond by saying that there is simply too large of a volume of programs to rate all of them.

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As an example, they say that there are fewer than 600 movies that have to be rated each year by the Motion Picture Association of America, while there are over 600,000 hours of cable programming that would have to be rated each year. 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. 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 that will attract more advertiser revenue. Even though the V-chip has been signed into law, there are still tremendous hurdles it must pass before it appears in television sets. 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 including me dismiss the whole effort as largely a political maneuver.

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. 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. July 30, 1998 English 1A.