Two Cheers for the V-Chip

In the July 25 New York Times, Jim Rutenberg reports that TV owners aren’t using the V-chip technology  that Congress five years ago ordered electronics companies to install. The story is based on a new study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. According to the study, only about 7 percent of all U.S. families are using the V-chip to filter out sexual and violent content. Chatterbox, who harbors pro-regulatory leanings and is a parent of two (ages 8 and 5), initially shrugged off the non-usage of V-chips by attributing it to the durability of older TV sets. The V-chip has only been standard equipment since January 2000. How often are most people going to buy a new idiot box? (Chatterbox’s desktop home computer, manufactured in 1996, is an antique badly in need of replacing, but his TVs, most of them manufactured 10 to 20 years ago, are humming along just fine.) It turns out, though, that Americans buy TV sets with amazing frequency. Fully 40 percent of American parents now own a TV set new enough to contain the V-chip, and among this sizable slice, only 17 percent actually bother to activate the V-chip. Why the lousy track record? Chatterbox decided to investigate.

Chatterbox’s method was to activate the V-chip in the new Panasonic he’d purchased a couple of weeks before for a playroom in the Chatterbox family’s newly renovated basement. Sharp-eyed readers will immediately observe that even a confirmed liberal nanny-stater had failed to activate the device he would foist on others. Did Chatterbox know he had a V-chip? He did. This apparently puts him way ahead of many other parents. According to the Kaiser Foundation study, only 53 percent of all parents who own a TV set with a V-chip know that it’s there. So education is a big problem. But it isn’t the only problem, because 30 percent of parents know they have a V-chip but haven’t used it. Until this morning, Chatterbox was one of them. Unlike many of these people, Chatterbox intended to activate the V-chip. But he hadn’t. Why?

Technology fatigue, mainly. Turning on a TV set is one of those activities (Xeroxing is another) that, sometime in the last decade, went from being something any moron could do to something that required sustained attention and skill. Once, all you had to do was plug the television in and turn the channel. Now you plug it in, you attach the VCR, you call the cable guy to hook it up, you figure out how to make the VCR work (a challenge even if you don’t plan to program it to record your favorite TV shows), you figure out how to make the two remote controls work–one for the TV, one for the VCR–and then you collapse in a heap of exhaustion. The last thing you want to do after all this is look at your TV manual, and at any rate, the instructions for using the V-chip didn’t come in the manual on how to use Chatterbox’s TV set. They came in a separate, small booklet.

The booklet was laid out in three columns, giving instruction in three separate languages–English, Spanish, French–none of them native to the employees at the home office of the Japanese corporation that arranged to have it written. On the booklet’s first page were instructions for something called “Lock Set,” which, on inspection, would enable Chatterbox to prevent his kids from playing any video games and watching any tapes on the VCR. Because Chatterbox’s kids don’t own any video games and have never shown any interest in watching the R-rated tapes in his possession, and because his kids’ Czech au pair, who does enjoy watching grown-up videos, would prefer to watch them in the playroom after the kids go to sleep, Chatterbox skipped ahead to the V-chip-specific instructions on the next page.

“In the main Menu, press the CH or VOL buttons to highlight LOCK icon,” read the text, embedded in which were the specific visual symbols denoting the channel and volume buttons on Chatterbox’s remote control. But how the hell do I get to the Main Menu? Chatterbox consulted the other booklet–the one about how to operate everything in the television except the V-chip–and established that he first had to press the ACTION button on the remote. Er … what ACTION button? Maybe this is the video remote instead of the TV remote. No, it’s definitely the TV remote. Oh. There it is. It’s the little purple button in the middle. If you held the remote to the light, you could just make out that letters arrayed around the purple button were etched in the plastic to read, “ACTION.” (It was the only writing on the remote control that wasn’t highlighted in bright colors.)

OK, back to the V-chip manual. I used the CH button to select the LOCK icon. I was prompted to enter a numeric code that I could remember. Unimaginatively, I chose “1234.” (Don’t tell my kids.) Then I tried to highlight the BLOCK PROGRAMS field, but instead I ended up changing the channel. Where’s the menu? I’ve lost the menu! I turned the television off. I turned it back on. I hit “ACTION” again and got the menu back. I entered my numeric code again. OK, I’m ready to censor my childrens’ entertainment. But what do these ratings mean? “TV-Y,” “TV-Y7”–it’s all Greek to me. According to the Kaiser study, an impressive 56 percent of parents said they’d used, and therefore presumably understood, the TV ratings. I was not one of them. I consulted the V-chip guide for a chart explaining each rating. (You can get the lowdown by clicking here.) By the time I’d read it, the menu had disappeared again.

I turned the TV off. I turned the TV on. I hit “ACTION” again. Menu’s back. I’m supposed to use the VOL button to select the ratings I want to enforce (basically, everything racier than “TV-PG,” which I assume, perhaps incorrectly, to approximate a “PG” movie rating). But wait. If I select a rating, does that mean I’m OKing those programs, or blocking them? I consulted the manual. OK, you click them green to let them through, red to block them. But by the time I figured that out, the menu had disappeared again. At this point, I came close to uttering one of the very words the V-chip is supposed to prevent my children from hearing.

I rebooted, made my selections, and was done. The entire operation took about half an hour, which isn’t bad compared to, say, assembling Christmas presents, but still constitutes a half-hour most parents don’t have. If Chatterbox were king, he would simply install a few buttons on the side of all TVs allowing consumers to make their V-chip selections without even turning on the set. Chatterbox continues to believe in the potential power of technology to help parents censor what their children see and hear. But that power hasn’t been fully harnessed yet.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.