WASHINGTON -- The V-chip is small, but its supporters say it will be a big help to parents who want to shield children from sex and violence on TV.
Critics counter by saying it's too complicated for busy parents to figure out and too dependent on an inconsistent ratings system voluntarily maintained by broadcast and cable networks.
Since Jan. 1, all new televisions with screens 13 inches or larger must contain the domino-sized "V-chip," designed to block television shows that parents think are inappropriate for their children. Families not in the market for a new TV can buy adapters for older sets.
"The V-chip is essentially a long-range remote control that lets parents block programming that they do not want their children to see, even when they can't be there to turn it off themselves," says Federal Communications Commissioner Gloria Tristani.
It's not as easy as clicking the "off" switch on the remote control, however. Parents must activate the V-chip and then program it to accept only those shows with certain ratings. In homes that still have a blinking "12:00" on their VCR clocks, this could be a challenge.
To program a V-chip, parents must first master the intricacies of the two-year-old TV ratings system. Networks participate voluntarily in rating their shows, so the system has some inconsistency about what constitutes "graphic violence" or "coarse language."
In addition, some programs - including news and sports - are exempt, so the V-chip won't filter them out. The V-chip also generally can't block violence- or sex-laced ads that air during programs aimed at young children.
"Essentially, what's happening now is that parents who can't program their own VCR are expected to program a V-chip. The data I've seen so far is that few people are using it," said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU opposes the V-chip because it "usurps the parent's role in determining what their children are viewing," Johnson added.
But Ginny Markell, president of the National Parent-Teacher Association, says it's too early to say how popular the V-chip will become. "There will certainly be some parents that don't use it, but that shouldn't stop us from offering it," she said. "It's yet another tool for parents to assess what is appropriate on television for their family."
Proponents say the V-chip is important in light of a new study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showing that American children watch an average of nearly three hours of television every day - most of that time without their parents present.
But even proponents acknowledge that there has been little public attention on the V-chip, and many parents may still not know that it is available. That could be remedied by a new series of public service announcements about the V-chip produced by the four major networks - ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
The announcements urge viewers to call a toll-free telephone number, 877-282-4478, or log onto http://www.vchipeducation.org/ to get a free booklet, "A Parent's Guide to the TV Ratings and V-chip." The 16-page, glossy booklet offers clearly written information and was published by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Media Education.
The V-chip was invented about 10 years ago by Tim Collings, a Canadian professor who was spurred to action by the 1989 shooting of 14 engineering students in Montreal by a man who loved to watch violent videos.
Members of the U.S. Congress, searching for a way to contain increasing violence and sex on television, eagerly took up the cause of the V-chip. In 1996, lawmakers passed legislation requiring all new televisions with screens 13 inches or larger to include the V-chip by 2000.
A year later, lawmakers persuaded the television industry to create a voluntary system for rating all programs other than news and sports. The ratings are encoded into the programs so they can be read by the V-chip, and they are also displayed in the upper left corner of the TV screen for the first 15 seconds of a program. The six largest broadcast networks and most of the largest basic cable networks are encoding their programs so they can be read by the V-chip.
Parents express keen interest in the V-chip when they are asked about it in surveys. A poll of 1,000 parents last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 77 percent of them said they would use a V-chip, if available, to block shows they found objectionable. But so far that parental interest hasn't translated into a big selling point for the new televisions, retail groups say.
"From what I've heard from our retailers, it's very rare for someone to come in and ask about the V-chip," said James Harper, manager of public relations for Thomas Multimedia, maker of RCA and General Electric televisions. "That may be because it is a feature that is built into all television sets now; it's one of those items like the power 'on-off' button or the remote control."
Parents purchasing one of the new televisions can activate the V-chip by using the remote control and following on-screen instructions. Parents choose a personal identification number, or lock code, which ensures that they are the only ones who can deactivate the V-chip.
Manufacturers say it's no harder than programming a VCR, but that's a challenge for many.