Taking out the trash

Bill Clinton thinks that attaching a V-chip to every TV set will help save the family. People who’ve actually used it aren’t so sure.

Canadian Business Technology, spring, 1996  

To be certain her children aren’t being warped by what they see on TV, Jo Dechambre would have to park herself in front of the set 24 hours a day. “At least 30% of the programming is stuff I don’t want my kids watching,” she says. “A lot of the movies on Superchannel, the daytime talk shows —everything that has a take or an attitude of, ‘What can we shock you with?’” Dechambre and her husband both work full-time, so she can’t always watch over the kids’ shoulders. And when she is at home, a hearing problem precludes the surveillance required to keep her kids (aged seven, five and three) from playing Russian roulette with the TV remote. All this made Dechambre a prime candidate for trial runs of something called the “V-chip” A tiny piece of silicon in her cable converter and a second remote control in her hand allowed Dechambre to create her own ideal TV universe without leaving her couch.


In late 1994 Dechambre and 57 other suitable candidates in Edmonton had their cable boxes fitted with the $4 V-chip. (“V” is for violence — what the chip is supposed to eliminate.) Each viewer can tell the V-chip what to block — and what not to block — by programming it with personal tolerance levels for sex, violence, nasty language and other potentially offensive content. The concept is the brainchild of Tim Collings, an engineering professor at BC’s Simon Fraser University who wanted more control over what shows his kids watched. Four years ago he started working on an electronic solution to that problem. He invented the V-chip, and it has become a pet of censorship-sensitive politicians on both sides of the border — and at both ends of the political spectrum. The US Congress passed a bill in February that will put a V-chip in every TV produced after 1997. But first, broadcasters have to agree on what constitutes “offensive” programming. And the V-chip’s users will have to teach it to discriminate between gut-wrenching movie violence and a cartoon character strolling off a cliff. When it’s ready, the V-chip may change our viewing habits as drastically as the remote control.


Over the past two years, “What’s on TV?” has become a loaded question. Some people cite the proliferation of news, documentaries and tastefully adapted 19th-century English novels as proof of improvement. Some politicians will tell you that what’s on TV accelerates family breakdown and encourages sociopathic behavior. But legislating morality has always been a losing proposition. The V-chip shifts the responsibility to its natural locus: each TV owner becomes his or her household’s censor.


Here’s how it works. Broadcasters decide how to rate a program. Is it suitable for children? Likely to offend? How violent is the story? Do people swear? Have sex? Codes denoting those elements are embedded in the part of the TV signal used for closed captioning or in a secondary audio program. The V-chip reads the codes, then processes the signal according to the settings its owner has given it. Impressionable youngsters in the house? Nothing but wholesome family fare on that screen; everything else will be blocked — blank screen, no sound. Adolescents curious about “grown-up stuff”? Their parents can fix it so they won’t see anything rated stronger than PG. But once the kids are in bed, a click on the V-chip’s discrete remote control removes all limits. Then, let’s say, Mom and Dad decide they’re too worn out to watch right through to the final credits of Foulmouthed Ninja Sex Kittens IV and stagger to bed forgetting to reset the unit. The V-chip will automatically flip back to its mildest setting in six hours.


Sound simple? Yes, but the Edmonton trial showed there are still some bugs in the system. The main problem was the V-chip’s excessive zeal. “It was a lot stricter than I was,” Dechambre says. “‘Damn’ was classed as profanity, for example. Men not wearing shirts — that was nudity.” Other users found their kids couldn’t watch Saturday-morning cartoons.


Pauline Crawford Villeneuve and her two kids were more than a little surprised when the V-chip cut their reception during The Cat Came Back, a National Film Board animated short about an indestructible feline with more than nine lives. And Crawford Villeneuve still can’t figure out why the V-chip didn’t like Mrs. Doubtfire: “Mature themes, I guess.”


With one prototype, the signals were programmed to cut out from scene to scene, depending on raunchiness. “Mine wasn’t working right — that’s what they told me,” says Luann Cumby, a neighbor of Dechambre’s and the mother of a two-year-old and an infant. “You’d be watching a movie and it would just suddenly cut out. It was frustrating.”


That scene-by-scene intermittence is a holdover from an earlier prototype since abandoned as unworkable. Collings equates that version with allowing 10-year-olds into “restricted” movies, then covering their eyes during the segments they’re too young to see.


While the programming wasn’t sophisticated enough, the user interface was too complex — it seems the designers forgot parents would be using it. In the grown-up TV world, time stands still: according to the VCR, it’s always 12:00 and blinking. In other words, the V-chip has to be simple enough for Dad to operate all by himself.


“With the first system, we had three buttons on the back of a set-top box,” says Collings. “Users punched in a code. That brought up a menu on the screen, which let them set the chip.” Users complained the buttons were too small. And the arrangement meant fiddling with tiny knobs on the back of the set, while craning their necks to see the menus on the screen. Having the controls attached to the TV meant kids could reset the V-chip to their own liking or disable it entirely. “1 found it really cumbersome to use,” Crawford Villeneuve says. “You’d have to hold down one key, then press another one [while] trying to keep an eye on the screen. It was all very difficult.”


Cumby talked to some V-chip testers whose 13-year-olds cracked the access code and reprogrammed the V-chip to their “no holds barred” liking. “We talked about the kids reprogramming it,’ Dechambre says. “But in our house, no means no. Another woman’s son wanted to take the unit apart.” (Nobody is sure whether the latter effort was spurred by curiosity or a drive to undermine parental authority.)


The second-generation V-chip has its own remote control, small enough to fit on a keychain — ensuring the controller stays out of children’s reach. Yet judging from the Dechambre family’s experience, kids won’t necessarily be plotting to get their hands on the keychain remote. Dechambre’s kids liked the V-chip. “It changed the way they watched TV,” she says. “My daughter would say, ‘There’s a “big people” movie on. I think it’s something we’re not allowed to watch.’ In some cases, I’d have to tell them it was OK.”


Inadvertently, Dechambre’s daughter Stephanie posed the question everyone involved with the V-chip is asking: what exactly determines a “big people” movie? “Coming up with ratings for violence, sex and language that everyone agrees on is tougher than it seems,” says Ric Davies, vice-president of programming for Allarcom Pay TV Ltd. Allarcom’s Superchannel movie service coded its signal for the Edmonton test. ‘Just figuring out how many steps to use was tough. We surveyed viewers to get a consensus. But even then, your steps and someone else’s steps will be different;’ says Davies. “How many steps are you going to have? Too many and it’s too complicated; not enough and it won’t be sufficiently sensitive.”


An early version offered nine possible settings, with additional options for violence, sexual explicitness and language. Nine were too many; viewers were confused. Stricken with option paralysis, they didn’t use the unit at all. The most recent prototype has five levels, loosely based on the Ontario Film Review Board system: exempt (unrated); general; parental guidance; adult; restricted. That system makes sense because it’s familiar— parents intuitively understand how a G-rated picture differs from something rated R.


Recently, broadcasters who had been holding out for a greater say in the ratings have become less reluctant about embracing the V-chip. “We tried to explain to them that that isn’t the main issue right now,” says Allan Sayegh, corporate programming director for Shaw Cablesystems (Alberta) Ltd. in Calgary. “We want to make sure the technology works before we figure out what the rating system ought to be.” Sayegh does know that any system will demand standardization across the country — a daunting task where one province’s M rating is another’s PG, and AA in a third. And then there’s the US: border confiscations of printed material and videotapes have highlighted how much ideas about obscenity vary across the 49th parallel.


Those debates haven’t deterred Shaw Cablesystems. In September 1994 the company put up $300,000 for development of the V-chip. Four months later it led the trial that put the V-chip into 58 Edmonton households like Dechambre’s. “We made sure to test this in families with children. People without children don’t see this [issue] as a problem,” says Sayegh. For the next three months subscribers found the V-chip’s limits and identified its strengths. The V-chip’s new, improved second version will be evaluated through trials in other Canadian cities this spring. Meanwhile, the cable company is pushing the V-chip through its prototype stages and aiming to bring it to market at an estimated cost of $1 or $2 per month for converters equipped with the device.


Sayegh is convinced he’s onto something good: “One of the things we heard constantly from subscribers was, ‘You’re on the right track; this is good technology; you’re putting the control into my hands in my home.”


 So why haven’t we seen the v-chip yet? “It’s the networks that have been dragging their feet. They think this interferes with their First Amendment rights,” says David Moulton, chief of staff for Ed Markey, a Democratic congressman from Boston and a longtime advocate of the V-chip. (Recently the US networks picked up the pace. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are now working with the Motion Picture Association of America to develop a rating system.) In 1993 Markey started the V-chip on its legislative journey by introducing a bill in Congress backing its adoption — a bill also supported by Republicans. That measure became an amendment to a much larger telecommunications bill passed by Congress on Feb. 1. The amendment will make the V-chip a standard part of every TV set sold in the US beginning in 1998, a plan much lauded by President Bill Clinton. Canada’s federal broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, is backing the V-chip as well.


Still, Dechambre worries that once the V-chip is perfected and scans everything, broadcasters will become less responsible; with the V-chip filtering what gets on-screen, content won’t be a broadcaster’s problem anymore. “They’ll figure they can show whatever they want, since it’s being censored at home,” says Dechambre. “They’re talking about putting the ratings in TV Guide. I’m worried they’ll start using high violence ratings as a marketing gimmick.”


Dechambre is more enthusiastic about the device when talking to other parents. “I’d recommend it,” she says, albeit with a caveat and a reminder of a much simpler way to stop kids from watching bad TV. “It’s by no means a baby-sitter. And there’s always shutting off the TV altogether.”


Crawford Villeneuve abandoned the V-chip, finding its inscrutable standards impossible to figure out. “We found ourselves not using it at all,” she says. “It was easier to just monitor what the children were watching. If there’s something you don’t want them seeing, you can usually tell it’s coming. Just change the channel.”


Collings has his own ideas about how his invention could influence broadcasters: “I think it can only lead to better programming. If the audience isn’t there because they’re blocking the program, it’s the same as having nobody tune in.”


And there’s one unquantifiable element of TV that Collings admits he can’t teach his V-chip — yet: “We’ve been joking that we ought to include a ‘too dumb to bother with’ category for really inane sitcoms, or ‘too boring.’ But it’s even more difficult to get people to agree on what is stupid or boring. Although, if you could, it is possible with this chip — theoretically, at least.”