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The V Chip ratings controversy

Sat, 09/30/1995 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss
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By Jeffrey Krauss, perpetrator of techno-babble and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

When the House and Senate bills are combined and enacted into law, the V Chip provision is likely to be part of that law. But the V Chip isn't a chip at all. And while the V Chip is controversial, the controversies aren't over the hardware and technology; it's the rating process itself that creates the controversy.

Ratings

The concept of voluntary industry ratings of programming is old. The Motion Picture Association of America has been assigning ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 and X) to movies for many years. But MPAA ratings only apply to movies, not to TV programming, generally.

A few years ago, some folks got upset about the level of violence portrayed in TV programming. This led to the notion of assigning ratings to all TV programming, and giving parents the means to restrict their children from viewing programs with unacceptable program content. Because the MPAA rating scale is not very explicit about whether a rating is related to sexual content, violence or language content, new rating scales will undoubtedly be needed.

Technical Solutions

It was quickly recognized that the technical means for accomplishing parental control was relatively straightforward. The ratings will travel along in the vertical blanking interval (VBI) of the TV signal. Line 21 of the VBI was initially used only for closed captioning, starting with demonstrations by ABC and PBS in 1972. FCC rules were adopted in 1976, and legislation was passed that required that after July 1993 all TVs 13 inches or larger contain captioning decoders. While half the Line 21 capacity is dedicated to captioning, the other half can be used for transmission of other data (such as program guides, emergency weather bulletins and program ratings).

Two years ago, the EIA convened a standards committee to work on standards for transmitting program ratings. That work is nearly done. Not all the details are worked out, but the technology will employ virtually the same decoder chip that is now used for closed captioning. So there will be little, if any, additional costs for analog TV sets.

Similarly, digital video signals will be able to carry the ratings information as data packets. The Advanced Television Systems Committee, which is writing the HDTV standard for the FCC, is including the following potential ratings scales in its standard:

  • Violence content (no violence, mild violence, violence, graphic violence, rape)
  • Sexual content (no sexual content, brief nudity, nudity, strong sexual content)
  • Language content (no adult language, adult language, adult content, graphic language).
Who does the Ratings?

What do these categories mean? I don't have a clue. Neither do the hardware types who write the transmission standards. But I won't be the one who has to decide on the ratings, and neither will they. The TV and video programming industry will have to come up with a "voluntary" way to assign ratings. If they don't, then the law will require the FCC to create an advisory committee of parents, programmers, broadcasters and cable operators to do the ratings. What a job! Watching TV eight hours a day. I wonder how much it pays.

The law would prohibit the FCC's advisory committee from assigning ratings based on political or religious content. But most likely industry will establish a "voluntary" ratings organization, and it would not be prohibited from considering political or religious content. That suggests the following rating scales:

  • Political content (democratic, republican, dictatorial, socialist, anarchic)
  • Religious content (agnostic, mild religion, pious, devout, zealous, sacrilegious, necromancy).
Remaining Questions

TV stations and cable programmers have huge libraries of programming. Do these have to be rated? The law isn't clear.

There are hundreds of millions of TV sets and VCRs in U.S. homes today. Will there be a market for separate parental control units that you can buy at Radio Shack or Circuit City? I bet there will.

There are still some technical questions. Line 21 doesn't have the capacity to broadcast the program ratings continuously. Perhaps once every 15 seconds is sufficient. But some have suggested rating each scene rather than the program as a whole, so only violent scenes might be blocked. This would require that ratings be sent more often than every 15 seconds. And channel surfing would provide a few seconds of clear programming, before the rating data is decoded, and the blocking is implemented.

And finally, there is the question of the "user interface" and whether adults who can't program the time on their VCRs will be able to figure out how to block out certain programs. I can see it now: "Son, I'd like to program the parental control so you can't watch Beavis and Butthead, but I can't find the instructions and I lost my password." "That's OK, Mom. I'll program it for you, and you wrote your password on the back of the TV."

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