As the long-promised V-chip begins its steady rollout to
mass implementation, the TV content-ratings system that the chip will purportedly help to
enforce is proving to be as enigmatic and befuddling as ever to the cable community.
From operators and programmers, this has elicited a curious
mixture of dread and apathy.
It's been about one year since the broadcasters and
major cable networks (except NBC and Black Entertainment Television) began running letter
notations with programs to alert parents to shows with violence (V), sexual content (S),
potentially offensive language (L) and suggestive dialogue (D). NBC and BET have continued
instead to run the age-based ratings of "TV-PG," "PG-14" and
A survey released in May by the Kaiser Family Foundation
noted that 93 percent of parents found the system useful in making decisions about which
shows their kids should watch.
But in September, a new study by the foundation found that
the "VSDL" system of "content descriptors" was ineffective in actually
flagging shows that contain sex and violence. According to the September study, nearly 80
percent of shows with violence and better than nine out of 10 shows with some form of sex
or intimacy failed to get slapped with "V" or "S" labels,
The results naturally drew a collective yawn from the cable
community, which has long believed that it can police itself just fine, and that the
content system is merely a product of overzealous politicians pouncing on an easy target.
At least so far, the ratings have yet to become the government "Big Brother"
that had been feared.
"From what I've seen, the ratings haven't
affected production or content decisions at all," said Mark Feldman, senior vice
president of business and legal affairs and general counsel for E! Entertainment
Television. "It only affects us in terms of having to ascribe the appropriate labels
onto programs. If I were a parent, however, it would be irrelevant to me."
What was of somewhat greater concern to Feldman and others
was the idea that "with the V-chip mechanism being what it is, there's the
likelihood that a household may inadvertently block a greater volume of programming than
it intended to. There's a big confusion factor at work," Feldman said.
Indeed, that idea of confusion and technology clashing
head-on was particularly nettlesome to the National Cable Television Association, in light
of reports that some TV-set makers plan to offer consumers the choice of blocking such
unrated programs as news, sports and commercials from their screens via the V-chip. If
that happened, the V-chip would become more of an "E-chip," potentially blocking
An NCTA statement in July said, "We hope that the
manufacturers won't proceed down a path that makes the operation of the V-chip
confusing for parents."
Jill Luckett, vice president of program-network policy for
the association, cautioned, "Until the V-chip is in place, it's premature to say
how effective the content-rating system will be and how it will all play out."
Some parental watchdog groups have continued to protest
that the content-rating system that is currently in place doesn't go far enough and
remains relatively ineffective. But one cable-industry official insisted that the setup
"has not generated the levels of parental-interest complaints that were initially
anticipated. The political interest, too, has fallen away, as Congress became more hung up
on righting its own moral ship."
As V-chip set-top boxes begin to flood the marketplace, the
idea that the technology could block out advertising -- the very foundation of the TV
business -- has resulted in a chilling effect. Some in the industry have called that
"a deal-breaker" by itself, while TV manufacturers like Thomson Consumer
Electronics (makers of RCA and GE brands), and V-chip author Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.),
have held firm to their positions.
All that's clear at the moment is this: The Federal
Communications Commission has mandated that 50 percent of all TV sets with screens 13
inches or larger must be equipped with V-chip blocking technology by July 1999, and that
all sets must have it by January 2000.
Feldman said he would be "very surprised" if TV
manufacturers followed through on supplying the mechanism to block unrated programs.
"If I were Madison Avenue, I'd be very concerned with how sophisticated the
technology had become," he said. "But our chief concern continues to be that the
V-chip not cut too broad a blocking swath by accident."
Rod Perth, former entertainment chief at USA Networks Inc.,
doesn't believe that the debate should be about commercial blocking, but about a
change in standards that has brought cable to this point.
"The reason why this content system was pushed onto
the industry at all is that you have people talking about sex and purely adult issues at 8
p.m.," Perth asserted. "As a viewer, I'm here to tell you that the
standards have loosened greatly. As a programmer, I'm saying that all of us have
played it a little fast and loose at times.
"Does this mean that we need a V-chip? I don't
know. But I will say this: Any real impact felt from the system and the chip will be
virtually nothing for at least five years. I honestly believe that."
Others, like Turner Broadcasting System Inc. counsel Bert
Carp, maintained that the system has already had a positive impact.
"It's too early to say whether the system causes
programming to change," Carp said, "but it's not premature to observe that
it has provided more information for parents when they're making decisions -- far
more than they ever had in the past."
Meanwhile, on the cable-operator side, Lynne Buening, vice
president of programming at Falcon Cable TV Corp., agreed with Carp that the ratings
system has quickly grown into "a very useful tool."
However, Buening was equally vocal in her disdain for the
"The most powerful control for the TV that people have
is in their right hand or left hand," she said. "I really find it disappointing
that we suddenly have to regulate access into the home when it's really the
individual's free choice."