The TV salesman hustled over to pitch the latest razzle-dazzle. But he fizzed out on the V-chip. Couldn't demonstrate it or come up with promotional literature or working instructions.
The V-chip, which affords parents some control over what their kids watch on the tube, is in deep trouble when TV manufacturers don't see it as a sales tool.
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation confirms the program-blocking chip is barely on Americans' radar screens. Forty percent of American parents now own a TV set with the embedded chip, but only 17 percent of them use it, Kaiser found. Fifty percent of the parents with the new sets (the chip is in all TVs manufactured since 2000) didn't even know they had a V-chip. Of those who were aware, only one in three ever use it to block shows they don't want their kids to see.
t's not as if parents aren't concerned, notes Kaiser. Other surveys show they do want to exercise some control over the intrusion of sexual and violent programs into their children's viewing. Fifty-six percent of parents report using TV ratings, which are listed in TV Guide, and at the beginning of TV shows, to make a decision about what their children are allowed to watch.
UCC promoted it
The original promoters of the V-chip, which included the former UCC Office of Communication when it was under the leadership of Beverly Chain, saw the technology as an easy way for parents to take control.
What happened? It's the technology, stupid.
"If Americans can't figure out how to set the timer on a VCR, don't expect them to embrace the V-chip," says Robert Thompson, who studies the impact of media and culture at Syracuse University.
To turn on the V-chip, parents have to use a 4-digit personal ID number (their own parental "lock box"). Then they are faced with two separate codes: one with four ratings for movies, the other with six ratings for TV, the latter of which is further broken down by age and content.
In addition, there is no standardization of what the chip does. Some TV manufacturers allow blocking a single show, others an entire series or a particular channel.
It's just too complicated, says Robert McGannon, director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project. "It's just one more electronic gizmo they're going to resist," he says.
People are "inherently lazy," adds Tim Hollings of Technical University of British Columbia, the inventor of the V-chip. "I can't be much blunter than that."
There's psychological resistance, too.
"We resist blocking things," says Richard Kahlenberg, Los Angeles Times media columnist. "We go to the supermarket with a list of things we want to eat, not what we don't want to eat."
Only an "aware" person goes to the trouble of predetermining what they are going to watch, explains Ranny Levy, president of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media. "Most people are too busy."
Ironically, Tim Hollings originally designed the V-chip to enable parents to access good programing rather than to block out the bad.
Given the problems the V-chip has already encountered, is it worth keeping?
"Yes," says Elizabeth Tolman, president and founder of Media Literacy Project. Education is the key. "An organization like ours can help, but we don't have the resources," she says. "Government does."
To date, only the Hallmark channel has promoted the V-chip on the air. That was three years ago, but now Hallmark and the Federal Communications Commission have just announced the reactivation of the National V-chip Campaign with the first step being the reprinting of the FCC V-chip brochure with Kermit the Frog as the official "spokesfrog." The FCC expects to make copies available to public interest, consumer and educational groups.
Robert Thompson would like to see a tutorial that is activated the first time a new TV set is turned on. Other ideas are to have a single code and have the ratings determined by an independent board rather than by program producers. And a number of critics, including Tim Hollings, think digital TV will make it easier to access information not now available, like transcripts of programs.
William C. Winslow is a free-lance writer based in New York City.
Federal Communications Commission, www.fcc.gov/vchip
Center for Media Literacy, www.medialit.org
Coalition for Quality Children's Media, www.cqcm.org
The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board, www.tvguidelines.org
Faith&Values Media, www.faithandvalues.com