Campaign Aims to Make Parents V-Chip Hip

If your home contains the two central components of the average American family -- a child and a television -- you're probably worried about how the two interact. You're apt to be concerned that your Sony is saturating your sonny with sex, violence, nudity, foul language, David Hasslehoff and other objectionable stuff. Sure, you think that junk's okay for responsible grown-ups like you, but shouldn't we keep junior's eyes off Pamela's thighs?Finally, parents may have a reason to stop cringing when their kids turn on the tube. A new tidbit of TV technology, the V (for violence) Chip, will allow parents to block out programs according to an industry-driven rating system. Per an FCC mandate, half of all televisions sold after July 1 will come equipped with V-Chips. By January 1, 2000, every television with a screen greater than 13 inches sold in United States will have a V-Chip. Sounds like a dream-come-true for fretful parents -- except that less than half of all Americans even know what a V-Chip is, much less how to use it.A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only four out of 10 parents have ever heard or seen an explanation of the V-Chip and its corresponding TV rating system. Nonetheless, seventy-seven percent said they would use the V-Chip if they had it in their home. "Many parents are deeply concerned about the impact of TV on their kids," said Vicky Rideout, director of the Kaiser Family FoundationÕs Program on Entertainment Media & Public Health, "but right now they don't understand what the ratings mean or how the V-Chip works."The ratings, which already exist for most shows, are fairly simple to understand. They come in two varieties: Content ratings and age-based ratings. A show may be rated TV-14 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) and also receive an S for sexual depictions, V for violence, L for explicit language, or D explicit sexual dialogue. Shows may be given a TV-Y (All Children), TVY7 (Directed to Older Children) rating, or a fantasy violence (FV) rating (for cartoons and other fantasy shows that Òglorify violent acts"). The V-Chip can also be programmed to block out shows that have not been rated or movies on premium cable channels that use the familiar R, PG-13, PG, G system. The ratings are not applied to news or sports programming.Once parents understand the ratings, however, learning how to use the V-Chip is another matter. "At this early stage, people are not just confused about the technology and how to use it, but have a complete lack of information that it exists," said Cathryn Borum of the Center for Media Education (CME). Referring to her own experience programming a V-chip TV, she vouches, "It's really easy once you actually see the display."To combat V-Chip illiteracy, the Kaiser Foundation and the CME recently launched an extensive public information campaign called "The V-Chip Education Project." They've created a Web site and thousands of free booklets that both explain the TV rating system and teach parents how to use the V-Chip. The campaign is also distributing a feedback form that allows parents to tell industry executives and child advocates what they think of the program ratings. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) have pledged to join the campaign by producing public service announcements which will be sent to networks and cable channels on July 2.Of course, the V-Chip hasn't make its arrival without controversy. The FCC mandate to install the new technology came after years of debate that meandered across the political spectrum. And now that it has arrived, first amendment advocates such as the ACLU say that fundamental problems with the V-Chip still remain. According to Ann Brick, an Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, "It isn't really parents deciding [what gets blocked out]. It's people who do the ratings who decide what's in and what's out of a particular category. They're really making the decisions about what the public will have the opportunity to watch." Brick worries that networks will shy away from airing shows that have controversial topics, such as gay and lesbian issues, for fear they will be blocked.From the other side of the political spectrum, the V-Chip rating system is getting hammered for allegedly (italics)promoting(end italics) sex and violence. A report released in May by the Parents Television Council (PTC), a conservative advocacy group, found that sexual and violent content rose 31 percent since the major networks started rating their TV shows. After comparing two weeks of programming on major networks from 1996 through 1998, the PTC concluded, "television is the raunchiest it has ever been in spite of, or perhaps because of, the ratings system."And to top it all off, not all networks are cooperating. In order for the V-chip to work, broadcasters must send a rating signal that the V-chip can recognize. Most networks began voluntarily using the rating system early in 1997, but NBC refuses to use content-based ratings and BET (Black Entertainment Television) does not use the rating system at all. NBC claims content labels are "inflammatory," complicated and brought on by groups who want to change TV content, not create a system that works for parents and children. Despite these objections, the V-Chip Education Project is intent on getting out the word about the technology. They are fending off any cries of censorship by focusing on how the V-Chip empowers parents. "This is a tool for parents, not to take the place of parents," says CME's Borum. "It is a tool parents can choose to use or not to use. This is not censorship." In fact, most networks have taken a brave step by rating their own shows. By doing this, they give people information that may encourage them to block shows with controversial ratings. And losing viewers means losing advertising dollars. Borum encourages parents to contact the monitoring board and the FCC to pressure all broadcasters into using the rating system. For the V-Chip Education Project, the key to parents' control over what their kids consume on TV remains awareness and information about the V-Chip and how it works. For a free copy of the project's booklet: "A Parent's Guide to the TV Ratings and the V-Chip," call 1-877-2-VCHIP-TV. To view online or download the guide, or for more information, visit www.vchipeducation.org.

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