Chip Off the Block

V-Chip legislation is doubly awful.


Let's hear it for the "V-Chip"–a small device that viewers can use to block unwanted television programs from reaching the screen. Most government "solutions" tend to fail because they are either flawed in theory or botched in practice. But the V-Chip is a rare instance of government efficiency: It is both repellent as a concept and doomed to real-world failure.

And, like so much misguided legislation, it's not going away. As part of telecommunications reform, both the House and the Senate passed V-Chip legislation by wide margins; there is little doubt that the V-Chip will be part of the final bill presented to President Clinton, who has declared his unwavering support.

House and Senate versions of the bill would make it mandatory for all new TV sets 13 inches or larger to have V-Chip circuitry installed–raising the price of a set by as much as $50. Parents, say legislators, could then program the chip to block out unwanted cable and broadcast programs based on a ratings system yet to be developed. The ratings system, which is technically only recommended by the pending legislation, would address issues of violence, sex, and language.

The V-Chip is repulsive on moral grounds. Its proponents often refer to it as the "choice chip," even as it strips consumers of a very basic option: not to buy a TV without a V-Chip. In an unironic homage to George Orwell, one of the House co-sponsors, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), told the press, "People think this is Big Brother. It's not. It's Big Father and Big Mother."

Markey and his like-minded colleagues seem not to realize that it isn't the familial relationship in Orwell's phrase that bothers people–it's the "Big," the removal of individuals from the decision-making process.

Although V-Chip boosters dismiss charges of censorship, there's no question that the legislation is intended to use governmental muscle to change what people watch. "You know what," Markey told the Los Angeles Times, "this does have the potential of changing the economics of producing programming." "If advertisers know that a good chunk of the market might tune out programming because it has objectionable content, you might see better programming being produced," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the sponsor of the Senate bill. Of course, Conrad's idea is equally true in a V-Chipless world.

The practical matters surrounding the V-Chip are just as muddled:

• TV manufacturers estimate that it would be decades before every set in use in the country had a V-Chip in it–not counting sets smaller than 13 inches. Of course, if parents are that concerned, there are already about 20 models of TV sets or control devices currently on the market that let viewers screen out particular programs, channels, and time slots.

• Any ratings system for television would be virtually impossible to maintain. The Motion Picture Association of America, the organization that rates movies, handles between 200 and 400 films annually, roughly 600 hours of material.

By comparison, a single 24-hour-a-day broadcast channel airs almost 9,000 hours of programming a year. Even assuming that reruns make up half of that total, that's still about 4,500 hours per channel. Ratings proponents say that news programs should be exempt, even though such fare often contains many of the most violent and disturbing images displayed on TV. What's more, it's not clear what would qualify as news: 60 Minutes? Court TV? Hard Copy? All could make a good case–and all broadcast more than their share of violence, sex, and adult language.

• And what about reruns? "You can't expose kids to 100,000 acts of violence and 8,000 murders by the time they're 12 and not expect it to have an effect," says Conrad. If the problem is violence per se, then old shows must be blocked as well as current ones. And that doesn't just mean shows like The Untouchables, either. Virtually every episode of the golden-age favorite The Honeymooners, for example, includes explicit references to spousal abuse ("One of these days, Alice–pow! Right in the kisser!"). Add reruns into the mix–as the logic of V-Chip legislation demands–and raters will have to deal with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of hours of old programming. And what about commercials? They should be rated, as well, since they employ images of sex and violence.

• Who will devise the ratings? Congressmen have reiterated that the government will not be involved in actually rating programs. But what will happen if senators and representatives don't agree with the ratings? Or if consumers don't find them a reliable guide? Will the ratings be subtle enough to tell the difference between, say, Roots (a TV landmark as violent as it was educational) and Walker, Texas Ranger (a show as violent as it is, well, violent)? Because the chip is relatively unsophisticated, it is highly unlikely.

• Who will program the chip? Let's ignore for the moment that there's no good evidence that TV turns kids bad. It stands to reason that children most likely to be affected negatively by TV are precisely those living in environments least likely to contain parents who would decide what their children should be watching in the first place.

Such problems point to the likely outcome if the V-Chip passes: TV sets will be made more expensive to accommodate an ineffective potential ratings system that will have little or no effect on its targeted audience. Indeed, let's hear it for government efficiency.