For a flickering second, Jerry Springer’s face pops up on the TV screen. Then everything goes black and the words “Excessive Rating” appear at the center of the screen.
Welcome to the age of the V-chip.
The first production model of the V-chip, which permits parents to electronically block objectionable programs from their television sets, made its debut here at the 31st International Consumer Electronics Show.
Tri-Vision Electronics, the Toronto firm that licenses this first V-chip product, hopes to begin marketing a line of devices for existing televisions in midspring with prices beginning at approximately $70. But the likelihood of an electronic rating system in place by then is growing slim.
The problem is that the V-chip depends on broadcasters and cablecasters including encoded ratings with the shows. They would be the electronic equivalent of the ratings that appear at the beginning of most TV shows.
In July 1997, leaders of the motion picture, cable and broadcast television industries pledged that they would start carrying encoded rating information on Jan. 6, 1998.
But they haven’t. The reason is that the Federal Communications Commission has not yet completed a set of standards for either the ratings or the specifications for the encoding.
Worse yet, no one knows when the bureaucratic logjam will break.
Outside the television and electronics industry, there remains considerable debate about the ratings themselves. There are parents’ groups that want the ratings to carry more detailed information about objectionable material. At the same time, advocacy groups, most notably the American Civil Liberties Union, decry the ratings as an abridgment of children’s rights.
But inside the industry there is remarkable unanimity. In fact, manufacturers’ only real objection is that the current deadline for making the V-chip mandatory on new sets - July 1, 1998 - is unrealistic.
“We have filed a comment with the FCC that we are happy to comply,” said Cynthia Upson, vice president for strategic communications for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, “but until they have set a standard and a rating system, it is impossible for us to go any further.”
Many TV sets already include some basic blocking mechanisms, but nothing with the sophistication of the V-chip. Accommodating the new technology is a good deal more complicated, manufacturers insist.
“We have no problem with the concept of the V-chip,” said Gregg Chason, an executive with Philips Consumer Electronics Co., maker of Magnavox televisions. “We intend to support it as the law requires.
“But product planning can take 12 to 18 months. And that’s after the final standards are set. I’d like to see the implementation of this put off until mid-1999.”
That leaves parents in the middle.
“I really object to a lot of the shows that are supposed to be children’s entertainment,” said LaDawn Jakubowski, a Woodhaven, Mich., mother of two pre-teens. She cites the Comedy Channel show “South Park” as a program she would specifically block her children from seeing.