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Nets Turn to V-Chip as Savior

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The Big 4 networks did an apparent about-face on the v-chip last week, and veteran executives said the reason is simple: Despite their serious reservations about the device during its development a decade ago, the sky didn’t fall when the chip became a reality.
In the mid-1990s Hollywood railed against a system of content advisory labels filtered by sets equipped with a mandated v-chip. The broadcast industry warned that the mandatory nature of the regulation could mark a step toward censorship or suppression of controversial ideas, hamper their ability to compete with the less-limited cable industry and cause a false sense of security among parents.
Now, under a plan coordinated by the Advertising Council, each of the Big 4 networks will develop its own public service announcements to educate parents-about 80 percent of whom own a TV with a v-chip but in many cases don’t know it-about the device. The spots will air on each network and its owned stations.
“We are always, necessarily, protecting the businesses we are currently running. We were concerned about the unintended consequences,” said Peter Tortorici, who served as CBS Entertainment president at the height of the debate over the v-chip and now heads programming operations for MindShare. “Now we’re in a completely different time and place.”
The v-chip ultimately relieved networks of pressure to alter content, industry insiders said. The v-chip actually has served as a kind of defense against self-censorship, because the networks can program the way they see fit and then say the public is protected since it is equipped with advance knowledge of potentially offensive material as well as the tools to block it out.
Independent producer Warren Littlefield, who was NBC Entertainment president during the v-chip debate, said, “The v-chip hasn’t stopped broadcasters from putting on programming with violent content.”
“When it comes to a choice between censorship and the v-chip, we’ll take the v-chip,” added a veteran broadcast network executive. “It’s an opportunity to regulate our business without losing control over content. It can ease some concerns. That’s a good thing, and we’re all for it.”
But there was some suggestion last week that the network PSAs are less about the the TV industry’s gradual acceptance of the v-chip and more about the networks’ taking the opportunity to deflect the glare of Washington’s heightened scrutiny. The Parents Television Council, for example, had no applause for the v-chip or for the PSA campaign.
“They’re hoping to appease lawmakers,” said Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the advocacy group. “What they should be doing is saying we’re going to cut back on indecent programming, particularly during hours in which children are likely to be watching.”
Still, networks insist the move is just part of trying to be aboveboard about what they put on their air.
“Fox is never going to be the Cosby network,” said Tony Vinciquerra, president of the Fox Television Networks Group. “But people who watch our programming shouldn’t be surprised.”
Right now, the v-chip is virtually unused. Though any set greater than 13 inches that’s been sold since 1999 contains a v-chip, “Almost nobody uses it,” said Dave Arland, VP of government relations for Thomson, which makes RCA sets.
Viewers’ lack of awareness likely plays a part in the nonuse. And because the v-chip is government-mandated and thus not a unique feature, set makers have had little incentive to promote it, Mr. Arland said.
Tim Collings, director of research at technology firm Tri-Vision in Toronto and the inventor of the v-chip, said most people don’t make the effort to learn how to use the v-chip, but that’s partly because the target market, families with kids ages 6 to 12, is relatively small. “This is about 12 percent of the homes out there, so even if there are 80 million TV sets with v-chips, [target families] might be in no more than 10 million homes. Of those, perhaps half would be inclined to use it. It will take time, and there has to be a bit more knowledge and understanding before it will really take hold,” Mr. Collings said.
One top network executive is hopeful that once people become aware of the v-chip, they will start using it. He likened the device to seat belts, which largely went unused when they first were introduced. “They became part of our lives because we grew to understand the value of them. We think we can create the same demand and understanding,” the executive said of the network PSA campaign.
The individual network PSAs, which are of varying lengths, will direct viewers to each network’s Web site, where they can find information on the chip, ratings and links to instructions for programming the v-chip in TVs, set-top boxes and personal video recorders.
A second leg of the plan announced by the Advertising Council holds out the possibility of a common v-chip PSA that might run on all the networks.
The National Cable & Telecommunication Association launched a consumer education campaign last month about parental controls and the v-chip.
The association’s new “Cable Puts You in Control” campaign hinges on its new Web site at Controlyourtv.org and a series of PSAs that will be distributed in early April to cable systems around the country. The top 10 multiple system operators, which represent 85 percent of cable customers, have also agreed to provide channel-blocking capability to customers who don’t possess it.
Thomson/RCA and Fox have been promoting the chip and parental-control features in printed ads.
If the awareness outreach works, and the masses do start using the v-chip, the question of creating a false sense of security does still remain. By all accounts, the v-chip is not foolproof. After all, the very content that kicked off the current decency buzz-Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl stunt-would not have been blocked by it.
Daisy Whitney contributed to this report.