Washington -- The Federal Communications Commission last
week voted to require TV-set makers to begin installing program-blocking circuits -- or
V-chips -- in large TV sets by mid-1999 to give parents greater control over the viewing
habits of their children.
The V-chip mandate was adopted at the same time that the
FCC voted unanimously to declare the voluntary program-rating system that is now in wide
use to be "acceptable." The commission declined to endorse or reject any other
The FCC postponed the effective date of the V-chip mandate
for more than one year to accommodate the design cycle of TV-set manufacturers, which were
represented by the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.
"We listened to their concerns about timing,"
said FCC chairman William Kennard.
The FCC said that beginning July 1, 1999, one-half of all
new TVs with screens 13 inches and larger -- analog or digital -- are required to be sold
with V-chips. The remaining one-half must have V-chips starting Jan. 1, 2000.
Over the next year or so, parents will be able to buy
external V-chips for about $50, FCC officials said.
The FCC's action capped a bruising fight between key
Capitol Hill lawmakers and broadcasters that began over the inclusion of the V-chip
mandate in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and that continued until August.
At that time, almost all broadcasters capitulated to
various advocacy groups by agreeing to augment the existing age-based ratings system that
labels shows for violence, sex, strong language and suggestive dialogue (V, S, L and D).
News and sports programming are exempt from the rating
In a sense, the fight isn't totally over, because NBC
has refused on principle and for practical reasons to adopt the V, S, L and D additions.
Among cable programmers, only Black Entertainment Television has dissented.
NBC is using an age-based system and on-screen advisories,
said NBC spokeswoman Alex Constantinople.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a key V-chip sponsor, called
NBC's action a "nuisance and a pain and ... totally unnecessary."
FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth indicated that the
FCC should not pressure NBC and BET into adopting the FCC-endorsed rating system.
"Participation on pain of governmental penalty is
simply not willing participation," Furchtgott-Roth said. "I salute the courage
and fortitude of those programmers, such as NBC and BET, who have resisted political
pressure to convert these voluntary guidelines into mandatory regulations."
The V-chip can used to block shows with a TV-MA rating, or
programs not suitable for anyone under 17 years old. That would include Comedy
Central's animated hit South Park, which falls under the strict TV-MA rating.
Last week, a Comedy Central spokeswoman said the network
isn't worried about any impact on South Park's viewership because of the V-chip.
"We're not concerned because we are an 18-to-49 demographic network," the
spokeswoman said. "We sell 18-to-49 to advertisers. And we don't intend South
Park for kids. If a parent uses the V-chip to block a six-year-old from seeing South Park,
then they're ensuring the purity of our demographic."
Kennard hailed the V-chip as a tool for parents "that
they need to protect their kids." He said the V-chip, which can zap whole categories
of programming that parents find objectionable, was especially useful for working parents
who can't be home to monitor the TV viewing of their children.
As FCC commissioner Susan Ness pointed out, the V-chip will
take years to become a widespread household reality. About 23 million new TV sets are sold
in the United States each year, and there are an estimated 250 million TV sets in the
"Most people replace their TV set every eight
years," said CEMA spokeswoman Lisa Fasold.
Ness said she hopes that the V-chip does not become "a
license for broadcasters to roll out a host of programs that include now gratuitous
violence where they wouldn't have done it before."
FCC commissioner Michael Powell said the V-chip and the
ratings system are "tools, but they are not panaceas."
The FCC said personal computers with built-in TV tuners are
required to have V-chips under the same installation timetable as TV sets. FCC officials
said the V-chip will not be required to block video programming entering computers via the
"This V-chip will not be used to screen content on the
Internet," Kennard said. "We are only talking about broadcast
FCC engineers pointed out, however, that the V-chip is
technically incapable of blocking nonbroadcast images appearing on computer screens.
Another reason why the V-chip would fail on computers is because Internet video
programming would not be transmitted with a rating.
Linda Moss contributed to this story.