V-Chip Technology And Television

V-chip technology exists to protect youth from viewing television shows containing violence. This overview discusses the V-Chip's origin, development, legislation, and impact.

The search for a way to block television programs or channels considered objectionable for younger family members is probably as old as television itself.

As television programming matured over the decades, the designation of channels or programs as "for family viewing" could still not prevent a child from experimenting with different channels or from watching programs which were considered by parents and responsible society members to contain excessive violence or graphic sex scenes. Since only the parent or other caregiver was in a position to restrain the child, this situation frequently led to family conflict or forbidding the child to watch television altogether. That is, until the actuality of the V-Chip or one of its many variations in their television sets.

By January 2000, all TV manufacturers in the United States were required by a new, though hotly contested, U.S. law to install V-Chips in television sets 13 inches or larger. For those whose sets are not new and whose monitors are less than 13 inches, an encoded V-Chip device may be purchased for under $100 and self-installed.

Although the development of a TV monitor of one description or another was certainly on the horizon, invention of the device popularly known as the V-Chip can be traced to a Canadian engineer, Tim Collings. Motivated by a tragic massacre in 1989 at Canada's Montreal Polytechnic Institute in which fourteen women were gunned down by a lone killer, Collings undertook in depth, personal research into the possible effects of TV on violence.

National outpourings of grief and indignation over what is now called the Montreal Massacre also inspired the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) to commission studies on the link between TV programs containing violence and their influence on human behavior in our society. The conclusion of the studies was that there is a link, if not a direct cause and effect.

Collings proceeded to develop a technological solution - the V-Chip. 1991 marked his first testing of the chip, which, when installed in a TV set, would permit viewers to customize their sets accordingly.

In 1992 both Canada and U.S. television networks and communication authorities became aware of the new technology. Following more testing, the chip was demonstrated at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1994 at an international conference on TV violence, and in 1995 at the Technology Exposition of the G7 meetings in Brussels. Interest in the chip was now international.

In the US legislation was introduced into Congress which called for a TV rating system and a V-Chip component in new television receivers. In Canada, the CRTC set up a program classification system to be in place by 1997 for incorporation into the V-Chip technology. The European parliament followed suit.

In the months prior to former U.S. President Bill Clinton's signing of the bill in February 1996, there was a groundswell of opposition, some but not all of which may have been politically inspired. There were those who saw the bill as an unvarnished form of censorship. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for example, mounted a campaign to defeat the legislation. It claimed that the V-Chip did, in fact, represent a form of censorship prohibited by the First Amendment of the American Constitution. It felt the government would be usurping parental control since the government, not the parents, would decide a program's rating.

The ACLU briefs pointed to alternate methods for parents such as a channel "lockbox" for cable TV. It further called into question the underlying assumption that watching TV violence is responsible for subsequent acts of violence and pointed out that among numerous studies, a direct connection has not been proved.

Moral arguments against The Telecommunications Act (the formal name of the bill which included the V-Chip provision) continued for some time following the bill's signing into law. The history of movie censorship in the United States was cited, whereby the Hays' Code eliminated key sections of literary classics, thus destroying their value. The Children's Television Act of 1990 was praised, however, for reminding broadcasters of their obligation to young people and their educational needs without imposing strict censorship regulations.

It is important to note that from its inception, the V-Chip was intended to signify TV viewer control, and although one might assume that the "V" stands for "violence," it originally stood for "viewer." While early concern stemmed from the possible influence of violent TV content on acts of violence, depictions of graphic sex rapidly became a part of the package in the minds of consumers and broadcaster alike.

Seemingly forgotten in the hullabaloo over the V-Chip legislation is that it is the parent's choice to activate the government-coded device. Consumer participation is, in other words, voluntary.

V-Chip legislation and public discussion around its need has brought a renewed awareness to broadcasters of their responsibility to protect the younger, more vulnerable members of our society.

It has also inspired an astonishing inventiveness in technology products. On the market and gaining in popularity is a colorful, attractive, reasonably priced, remote control device marketed specifically for use by children. Programmed by parents, the device permits children to control which channels they want to watch. While the freedom of the youngster to change channels manually remains a drawback, parents and other caregivers may establish the viewing parameters with which they are comfortable.

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