Requiem for the V-Chip

A relic of the last battle over indecency on TV.

The V-chip: unused protection

When the millions of families huddling for Super Bowl XXXVIII caught a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple shield—not to mention the fervent shimmying that preceded the halftime show’s bodice-ripping finale—the ensuing uproar over indecency on television was immediate and loud. But not unprecedented.

Back in 1996, there was a similar hue and cry over the dreck on television. Politicians vowed to help parents protect their kids and proudly touted their solution: the V-chip. (“V” stood for “violence,” which makes sense given the chip’s Democratic roots. Policy wags like to joke that if prudish Republicans had drafted the original bill, the device would have been called the “S-chip.”) At President Clinton’s request, Congress mandated that by 2000 all TV sets had to contain a computer program capable of filtering out lurid TV shows at the flick of a switch. With this sweeping legislative triumph, politicians declared victory over indecent television programming. Which leaves just one question: Does anyone actually use the V-chip?

The option became widely available without too much hassle. All new TV sets sold in the Untied States are now equipped with the feature. Despite predictions that adding the V-chip would jack up the price of a television by $5 or $10 per set, manufacturers found that by inserting just a bit of code to the existing computer program that enabled the closed captioning feature, they could include V-chip functionality at virtually no unit cost.Because the V-chip operates by blocking shows that have particular ratings, cable and broadcast networks had to create a system to rate all their programming, which required a bit more work—NBC was initially reluctant to rate its shows at all. But the rubric they came up with is very simple; the ratings are based on the Motion Picture Association of America’s feature film system. There are six possible ratings: TV-Y (suitable for all children, no sex or violence) is the most protective, TV-7 (OK for kids seven and older) is next. The highest is TV-MA (appropriate for mature viewers only). Using a remote control to bring up an on-screen menu like the ones that control brightness and contrast, a parent can theoretically find the content control feature and select the rating level desired. The V-chip then filters out all shows with racier ratings. And the block can be password protected, so tech-savvy kids don’t circumvent the restriction.

As easy as this sounds, the joke has always been that mom and dad will be unable to deploy any filtering device that requires programming skills without persuading their 10-year old to show them how. So the Annenberg Center recently studied households given active V-chip tech support. One hundred and ten families with children were given new TV sets containing V-chips, and most of parents received extensive operating instructions. At the end of one year, 77 families reported that they’d never tried the device, while just 8 percent claimed to be using it. This percentage is likely to be higher than that for usage among the general population, who’ve never received any training. For the most part, it seems that parents simply don’t use V-chips.

This is not to say that the ratings are ignored or that parents do not monitor what their children watch. According to a recent survey by the Jack Myers Political Report, 67 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds “report control of their TV viewing.” While “child locks” on satellite TV service predate the V-chip and enjoy some popularity, parents commonly restrict viewing by OKing certain networks (Nickelodeon yes, MTV no) and by conducting spot checks of viewing fare. In some cases, such strategies probably work better than a V-chip might: Since the system does not rate news or live sports, the filter has loopholes large enough for Janet’s breast to slip through. On Super Bowl Sunday, even a television with its V-chip set to filter all but the most innocuous content would have let the halftime show air.

The idea that technology allows parents to shield their kids by setting the television on automatic pilot is a figment of Washington policymakers’ imaginations. The V-chip was the perfect election-year innovation: pure sugar to the swing-voting soccer mom, virtually no-cost to industry, and annoying to Hollywood—whose leaders would be dragged to Washington for lectures on morality. In 1996, studio bigwigs and network executives trekked to the nation’s capital, posing with policymakers at both the White House and Capitol Hill. In 2004, we’re likely to see similar theatrics. Already, rival committees in the House and Senate are competing for broadcast industry executives to reprimand in hearing rooms (two sessions took place this Wednesday on Capitol Hill). But this time around, the V-chip is all but forgotten. A few policymakers have complained that TV networks are not sufficiently promoting V-chip use, but most are more jazzed up about a bipartisan proposal for a tenfold increase in station fines for indecent broadcasts—a tacit admission that the V-chip approach didn’t work.

The Internet, which harbors dangers for kids every bit as traumatic as exposure to Ms. Jackson’s flash dance, is instructive. Sizable chunks of teenage TV audiences are beginning to forgo Friends in favor of the Web, and parents are often happy to see this switch. But not because their kids are protected by law. While the same 1996 legislation that gave us the V-chip delivered voters the Communications Decency Act, which sought to regulate risqué Net content, the measure was largely struck down as unconstitutional. In the void, parents began to seek out alternatives. They bought Internet filtering software and began to embrace built-in versions providedby leading ISPs such as AOL, Earthlink, and MSN.

Perhaps parents adopted Internet filters and spurned the V-chip because watching television is generally a more public activity: It’s easier to keep an ear on what your kids are watching in the living room than to keep an eye on every Web site they see. But the point is that parents seek out the technological solutions they want, and when it comes to gadgets designed to aid parental control, they’re not waiting for salvation from the federal government. Not that the government seems particularly to care. During this high political season, you’re likely to hear lots more about what lawmakers will do to protect your children. If you can, filter it out.