Parental Control

10/27/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

The constantly expanding sea of video content available via TV, computers and mobile devices has fueled growing concerns about filtering and blocking age-inappropriate material. That has media companies raising the bar in the area of parental control, in terms of education, information and new technologies.

“There are millions of parents who want information about programs their kids watch and the choices they have to make about media. As those choices multiply, its even more important to provide reliable, trustworthy information,” said Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a non-partisan organization set up to help parents make decisions about media content.

The choices are indeed multiplying. During the next three years, nearly 35 million households will subscribe to a broadband video, voice or data service from a cable, satellite or phone company, the Yankee Group predicted.

By 2010, 30 million U.S. households will have a connected entertainment network, according to Parks Associates. In the same time period, mobile TV subscribers worldwide will reach 102 million, according to research group In-Stat (a sister company to Multichannel News).

And Comcast’s video-on-demand service recently passed 3 billion program views, equivalent to 10 programs watched by every person in the United States.

Surveying the Landscape
Research into consumer awareness of tools such as TV ratings and blocking technologies and their reliance on them is helping video providers map out their parental-control strategies. Some of the key findings in a recent survey conducted by Russell Research include:
SOURCE: Russell Research
91% of parents say they personally take some steps to manage what their children see on TV
The tools parents personally use range from watching TV with children (63%), limiting TV watching to certain shows (61%) and times (55%); using TV ratings (52%), using cable controls (17%), satellite controls (12%) or the v-chip (5%).
64% of parents allow their child to have a TV in their bedroom
85% of parents find TV ratings useful
66% of parents find cable blocking technology useful
57% of parents find satellite blocking technology useful
56% of parents find the v-chip to be useful
91% of parents say more parental involvement is the best way to keep kids from seeing what they shouldn’t see on TV
85% of parents prefer to have people exercise personal choice over what they watch on TV
Twice as many parents frequently use the parental controls that come with cable and satellite than use the v-chip.
Parents are most familiar with TV ratings (96%), cable (63%), v-chip (49%) and satellite (45%).

It is no surprise that a cross-section of media and related organizations are evaluating parental control in search of ways to help parents and children make better viewing choices.

“There is more and more emphasis and attention being paid to the parental-control issue,” Time Warner Cable vice president of product management Julie Simon said. “It’s being taken very seriously. If parents don’t feel comfortable with programming, it’s an issue for us, especially since the introduction of digital cable. Now, it’s not only control, but empowerment.”

Time Warner, in an effort to empower parents to make informed decisions about programming, teamed with watchdog group Common Sense Media, a partnership model that is gaining popularity with a growing number of media companies.

“[Time Warner] has led the way, but we are in discussions with other video content companies. We work closely with Time Warner in integrating new, creative content with their existing cable feed. And, we work with their marketing and community affairs groups on PSAs,” Steyer said. “Our next stage is fully integrating the reliable and trustworthy ratings and nutritional labeling for kids into the VOD category and into the [interactive program guide], which involves the latest technology in the set-top boxes. Our motto is: Sanity, not censorship.”

But maintaining parents’ sanity through the gauntlet of diverse programming available is no slam dunk. “We speak to a lot of parents, and when they know what’s available, it’s easier on them. But there’s a big education challenge in front of us, and we have to reach out even more to parents and partners,” Simon said.

Time Warner’s efforts now include cross-channel TV spots, e-mail blasts with kids’ messages and TV Navigator, which recently debuted in the company’s Nebraska system and is slated to launch in half of its systems this year and in all of the operator’s systems next year.

“It replaces the current user interface and includes a content advisory control and ratings guide. It will allow us to reach across all platforms and use it with interactive TV, Web sites and PC on the TV,” Simon said. “We’re talking to groups of parents now to determine what they want on the Navigator system.”

What most parents really want, TVWatch executive director Jim Dyke said, are the tools and information to make good programming choices for their children and themselves.

“All TV isn’t intended for kids, that’s why informed parents are so important and must make informed decisions for each child. We all need to do a better job with parental controls,” Dyke said. TVWatch is a coalition of individuals and organizations promoting parental education and control tools for TV.

A big part of the problem with parental control, he said, is learning to use the technology and controls available. “One of the debates is if parental controls actually work. They do,” Dyke said. “The V-chip is the baseline control method, and it works. But there are new technologies that will allow content to be blocked before it even shows up on the TV. There are empowering tools available to help make TV viewing decisions, and more being developed. It’s a mindset, and that’s what our education program focuses on.”

With more focus placed on bundled packages of video, voice, data and wireless service, companies like Cox Communications must expand their parental-control strategies across several different platforms.

“The biggest challenge has been getting parents to show interest in parental control. The parents are the best parental control feature there is, and we’ve attacked the issue from that perspective, and not just about TV control, but the Internet and phone as well,” Cox community relations director Mallard Holliday said.

“We found that 14% of kids have met a stranger in real life through the Internet, and 30% of teens are considering a similar encounter,” he said. “That’s when we decided to have a teen summit and dive down farther into those statistics from a thousand teens and the best way for parents to talk to them, while not overreacting. And that evolved into the video side.”

The findings prompted Cox to develop 10 PSAs and conduct a teen summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss the research, as well as create a partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The partnership developed PSAs for placement on Netsmartz.org, designed to help parents take a greater role in blocking programs and directing them to quality children’s programming.

“Partnerships are critical. It’s one thing to tell customers how to use parental controls, but a third-party endorsement of programming is critical,” Holliday said.

The Advertising Council, which has developed several long-running public service campaigns, including “Smokey the Bear” and “McGruff the Crime Dog,” has partnered with a cross-section of media and entertainment industries to launch a national multimedia campaign calling on parents to take a more active role in their children’s television viewing habits.

The campaign, dubbed “Media Management,” includes PSAs now being distributed to media outlets nationwide.

“We’ve developed a Web address, TVBoss.org, and since the media itself is the sponsor, we have more than $300 million in donated media, with hopefully another round of work,” Advertising Council president and CEO Peggy Conlon said. “The objective is to give parents the tools to protect kids from age appropriate programs. We know there are good things on TV for them, but not all of it is for kids.”

Media Management is “truly about empowering parents, and there is a high amount of media involved in the campaign,” she said. “We’re already talking with McCann Erickson New York, the ad agency working pro bono on the creative, to develop more spots.”

The campaign, Conlon said, is about more than the technology behind blocking content. It is “focused on personal responsibility. We want parents to understand they can control kids’ media experience and use the medium as a learning tool.”

Digital technology and an explosion of new channels also has the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, long involved in the parental-control development process, upping the ante on the issue.

“More cable customers have digital TV, which gives us more tools to use. But the comfort level must grow with the new technologies, and the biggest challenge is increasing the awareness,” NCTA senior vice president of program network policy Jill Luckett said. “The criticism we get is about the sex and violence on TV and how do we protect children from it. We’re aware of the content and mechanisms to deal with it. And for the first time, we’re all under the same umbrella with the Ad Council campaign.”

The NCTA is an integral part of the TVBoss.org/Ad Council campaign, and its previous involvement in the area includes the organization’s “Chalkboard” campaign of a few years ago. But the Ad Council effort brings far more breadth to the parental control issue, Luckett added.

“It’s unique, with additional industries working with the Ad Council to develop print spots, video spots and kits to be distributed to local organizations and religious groups. But the message has always been to ensure that people know they have devices in their homes for parental control,” she said. But advances in parental-control technology can also prove to be puzzling and frustrating for parents.

“This is an issue on top of many people’s minds, and we take it very seriously, but not everyone understands the process, so we instruct our installers to demonstrate PC locks with each new install, and detail parental-control guides in our welcome kits, on the Web site, in newsletters and cross-channel with parental-control information — all of the touch points. The effort is all about education and awareness,” EchoStar Communications senior vice president of marketing Jody Martin said. EchoStar is part of the NCTA/Ad Council coalition.

“We’re in discussions now about family-friendly programming packages, and offer our Dish Family Package of 40 channels to avoid any objectionable content,” said Martin. “It’s a robust part of our network.”

The most robust part of Comcast’s use of parental-control technology has been simply blocking objectionable programming via ratings and other methods.

“That has been the most used feature. We’ve moved up the lock symbol on the screen, provide tutorials via our Web site and in the future will make it more interactive, while designing new guides. Everything we do has parental control as a basis,” said Page Thompson, senior vice president and general manager of video services for Comcast, which also offers a family programming tier.

With the growing popularity of VOD, managing the parental control issue in the on-demand space has sparked some questions as well. But Thompson believes there are answers.

“VOD is not a new challenge,” he said. “When programs are blocked by ratings, they’re blocked on VOD too, since all content must be rated, especially new programs on VOD. The process works across all platforms. But it is an on-going effort to make people aware that it exists.”

Adult network The Playboy Channel is also an aggressive proponent of parental-control tools.

“Clearly, we provide entertainment strictly for adults,” Playboy Entertainment Group senior vice president of marketing Pamela Simmons said. “We’ve been an ongoing rally cry for adult control and felt we needed to give our partners the tools for parental control. And since we’re one of a few companies that provide programming across several platforms — broadband, wireless, mobile, cable — we’d be remiss if we didn’t reach all of them.”

Playboy this year launched its parental control campaign: “Parental control. Our right. Our responsibility.” (As reported in the May 22 issue of Multichannel News.) Its purpose is to “let parents know the programming is for them,” Simmons said. “We’re not preaching. Parents know it is their responsibility, but they’re not often equipped with the tools. So, we wanted to guide parents to blocking features and the tools.”

Playboy distributes the PSA campaign across channels that can include set-top boxes, TVs, PCs, links to major content providers’ Web sites, as well as mobile and handheld devices. “In first-quarter 2007, we’ll refresh the campaign. It’s very evergreen and meant to be relevant 12 months from now. It’s not a reaction to pressure, but a response to our partners and their parental control approaches,” Simmons said.

The pressure for video service providers such as Verizon Communications — and its fledgling fiber-to-the-home network FiOS TV now being deployed in a few select markets — is to simply generate awareness that it has its own parental-control process in play.

“Later this year, we’ll give customers a new remote control that has one button to access parental-control screens and pull-down menus. [Parental control] is a top of mind issue for mass-market production of FiOS TV. We’re looking at ways of making it even easier,” Verizon director of media relations Sharon Cohen-Hagar said.

FiOS TV’s parental controls allow the blocking of shows by channel, rating or category. It enables selective blocking of pay-per-view and on-demand purchases with the capability of hiding adult programming from the TV listings. The FiOS interactive program guide can automatically block higher ratings, and personal identification numbers can be created to ensure controls can’t be changed without approval.

“This isn’t just a campaign, but communicating about the materials on the Web site and a way of using the new technology of FiOS TV,” she added.

Parental-control processes are also a hot topic for technology companies such as Scientific Atlanta, whose set-top boxes sit atop millions of TVs. The role of companies such as SA in the parental-control arena is to provide simple, user-friendly technologies, but with a wide range of sophisticated controls.

“Politically, we’re all under a microscope by the [Federal Communications Commission], especially after the Janet Jackson scenario (Jackson’s breast-baring incident during the Super Bowl in 2004). We have to fill the good corporate citizen role,” SA director of product strategy and management for client software and applications Dave Clark said. “Our role is to provide the technology and software in our set-top boxes. We’ve had lots of requests from our customers to help MSOs with parental control features.”

SA and other technology companies are addressing the technical issues facing the industries that are advancing their parental-control processes. “In the past few years, there have been a number of enhancements to allow more user-friendly aspects of parental control,” he said. “Now, many operators are moving to OCAP [OpenCable Applications Platform] solutions, so operators will have a different way of presenting parental control guidelines.”

OCAP, the middleware software layer specification that will enable interactive services to run on any cable television system in North America, will allow companies like SA to build devices that will support all sorts of interactive services.

“Operators will have much more ownership and direct control of how they decide to implement kid-friendly and other parental control capabilities. It’s flexible and is clearly at the forefront at MSOs,” Clark said.

SA’s “Enhanced Channel Maps,” the company’s most recent iteration of its parental-control software, will provide an all-digital lineup with all-family-approved channels. The product is currently in the development stage, with operators expected to roll it out in the next 18 months, Clark said.

Still, these parental-control processes, software, devices and awareness campaigns can only be effective if parents understand and actually use them. “More education is needed,” TVWatch’s Dyke said. “The Ad Council effort is a big step in the right direction. Simply, kids should and shouldn’t watch certain shows.”

MTV Networks, with its widely diverse and global audience, is especially aware of parental control issues, particularly since many of its viewers are parents of younger kids. “Our audience is from 2 to 55-plus years old, so we use our standards-and-practices team vigorously and help parents navigate ways to ratings icons, PSAs and other features,” said Jessica Heacock, executive vice president of affiliate marketing and finance for MTV Networks. “But managing a household is hard, so the most effective means of parental control is awareness and involvement.”

MTV is involved in the Ad Council’s TVBoss.org campaign and other parental control processes, yet Heacock admits there is more that can be done to help parents. “The technology makes it easier with fewer clicks and it will become less challenging. But how do we make it easier and simple? We’ve created our own parental control spots and have been involved in ratings and navigation for years. And, we’ve led the research effort that resulted in the Chalkboard campaign. But if we find a better way, we’ll do it.”

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