Broadcasters Protest More Powerful V-Chip

In March, the Federal Communications Commission adopted new technical standards for so-called "V-chips"---programmable controllers that selectively block programs containing excessive violence, profanity, or sex. The regulations passed with congressional and presidential approval and were heralded as an empowering solution for working parents unable to supervise their children's viewing habits. A voluntary ratings system codes each program for objectionable material, and that code is transmitted with the program. Owners of V-chip-equipped receivers will be able to lock out any broadcast they deem unsuitable.

Now, TV manufacturers are taking the concept to the next level by including controller chips with the expanded capability to block any programming the set owner chooses not to see, including news, sports programs, and commercials. Fearful of losing their long-captive audience, broadcasters are howling in protest and threatening to boycott the proposed new system. Their plans include omitting the ratings codes altogether or rating news shows---which are frequently full of gore and violence---as "TV-G," which means acceptable for all viewers regardless of age.

Advertising pays for almost 100% of commercial television and occupies as much as 30% of broadcast airtime. The threat of losing very lucrative advertising revenue as consumers gain control of reception is viewed with alarm by broadcasters, who fought against widespread consumer acceptance of VCRs for the same reason. Home recording gave consumers the freedom to watch programs at their convenience, rather than on the networks' schedule. "Time-shifting," as it has come to be known, lets viewers zip past commercials, cutting the viewing time for a half-hour sitcom to under 20 minutes. The inability to accurately predict how many viewers will actually see any given commercial seriously undermines a broadcaster's position when negotiating with advertisers.

Where the networks see eroding revenue, manufacturers see strong sales potential in providing consumers with as much personal power as possible. The two sides are presently engaged in rancorous negotiations in Washington DC. Aides to Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who was instrumental in getting the ratings system and V-chip provisions into the Telecommunications Act of 1996, told the Associated Press they doubted that Congress would intervene.