R.I.P. for the Chip?

Heralded by many as a parent’s solution to controlling television content, the V-chip was described as "ineffective" by FCC officials in early December 2006. While others have criticized the device’s lack of use by the very people it was built to serve, having the chief regulatory body over broadcasting deem it a failure may be the final straw for the blocking device.

Usually, I cry at funerals, but in this case I’m not sure if shedding a tear is necessary. The FCC’s remarks were heard in court where the commission’s attorneys were defending the crackdown on profanities being broadcast by television networks—specifically Fox’s telecast of the Billboard Music Awards.

The commission is arguing that because the V-chip has proven to be ineffective, broadcasters must recognize their use of public airwaves (accurately described as a "scarce resource") provides them with only limited First Amendment protection during broadcasts occurring prior to 10 PM. The commission continued to assert that because they are "certain" children will be watching these programs, even contemporary standards don’t permit the use of the "F-word" and "S-word" in awards shows.

Interestingly, I recall a conversation I had with Michael Medved over a decade ago that predicted this very situation. I asked him what he thought of the then new V-chip technology and he responded that he was certain broadcasters would use it as justification to put whatever they wanted on the air. It would be up to parents to have their chips armed and ready to block the programming they didn’t want coming through.

In essence, this is what the FCC has also recognized.

To help frame the situation more clearly, imagine yourself in the position of a television network executive. You are constantly battling cries of censorship from program and content creators along with liberal audience members. Meanwhile the FCC’s new tough legislation hangs over your head with the prospect of costing you millions of dollars in fines.

Wouldn’t you embrace a technology that gives you immunity from being punished for a nasty word? Wouldn’t you, as that same executive, want to be able to say, "Parents have the V-chip. They should have turned up the language setting and the program would have been blocked!"

I’m certain that’s why the December edition of Broadcasting and Cable, a broadcast trade publication, reports that the industry is mounting a PR campaign to "tout [the] V-chip to viewers" even though it also admits "there’s not much evidence many parents use it."

Frankly, I’m convinced that Medved’s pessimistic view of what seemed to be promising technology is all too true. Now that the FCC is finally putting the heat on networks and television stations who are using public airways as if they were private property, there is a renewed interest in activating the aging technology. But it’s too little, too late, and for all the wrong reasons. As the FCC also pointed out in court, even if parents had activated their V-chips for the Billboard Music Awards it wouldn’t have blocked the offensive content because the programs were "misrated." (The Parents Television Council’s report on the failure of the TV ratings system in 2005 shows that this is not an isolated problem: http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/publications/release/2005/0418.asp)

So as 2006 reaches an end, it seems the V-chip is about to meet the grim reaper. I’m sure this won’t be the end of devices or systems that will attempt to keep inappropriate content out of family rooms of America. Yet the networks’ reaction to these initial fines only further convinces me parents are less able than ever to trust television networks to use this technology for the express purpose of helping families and children as opposed to creating an excuse to exploit the public broadcast airwaves to which they have been granted permission to use.

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