Is the V-Chip
For Prime Time?
V-chip inventor says his 'parental control' tool will
work better in digital.
of the V-chip by cable and broadcast systems faces more
political than technical hurdles as the mandated
technology evolves into a more advanced parental control
solution for digital television in the United
According to the
1996 Telecommunication Act, all television sets sold in
the United States after February 1998 must contain a
V-chip, which can block out shows with selected ratings.
As of today, however, the FCC has not fixed the "real"
compliance date for TV manufacturers because the
Commission has been waiting for the television industry,
specifically the broadcast networks, to develop an
acceptable system of rating programs.
The rating system
finally announced (as strongly influence by the motion
picture industry as the screen aspect ratio of HDTV),
calls for seven rating levels that essentially break down
into age categories. A cross-section of parental,
educational and other interests have condemned the new
rating system as too vague, instead demanding explicit
content information about a program's level of violence,
nudity and adult language.
inventor of the V-chip, Tim Collings, sides with those
who want a more precise rating system. "I would hate to
see the technology underutilized," he says, "because that
would be an injustice to the capabilities of the
technology as well a dismissal of what parents have
wanted for years."
A professor of
engineering science at Simon Fraser University in British
Columbia, Collings invented the V-chip after a 1989
shooting at an engineering school in Montreal. Reports
that the killer was an addicted fan of combat videos and
"action" TV shows prompted Collings to speculate what
would be required to put explicit advisory labels on TV
shows. And so he conceived the V-chip, which leverages a
TV operation's closed-captioning system to carry inband
data about program content.
assistance from his university colleagues, guided by
research on parental preferences, Collings by 1992
developed a prototype microprocessor chip that could scan
the VBI every few seconds to read a four-character code
and compare the data to the pre-selected access codes
retained in the chip's 4K of RAM. Frank Lewis at
Autograph helped write the on-screen user interface and
Bob Henson at Link Electronics provided the prototype
data insertion hardware.
After the prototype
was demonstrated to the Canadian government, Shaw Cable
agreed to fund a pilot project, which ran in Edmonton
from 1993 to 1994. Rogers Cable then tested the V-chip
system in Toronto and Vancouver. Subsequent V-chip tests
in the USA include cable systems in Buffalo and Seattle
plus tests by several cable channels. "Because cable is
mostly funded by subscriber fees," Collings observes,
"they generally have been more supportive than
broadcasters, whose revenues are very sensitive to
There's no need to
insert V-chip coding into your cable or broadcast
transmissions until chip-equipped TV sets and set-tops
are in the marketplace. When that time arrives, use the
computer connected to your closed-captioning encoder to
insert program title and ratings data into the analog VBI
or digital datastream of any program not already coded
before arrival. The source of the video does not matter.
V-chip program information can be pre-coded weeks or
months in advance, depending on the workstation memory.
Auto sync the clock to make sure the V-chip data is
encoded into the outbound signal in real time.
Whenever a V-chip
in the home encounters a proscribed code, the chip blocks
out the entire program with explanatory text appearing on
the screen. Scene-by-scene V-chip blocking of analog
content is doable now, but tests have shown that the
method is confusing to viewers. Single scene blocking
interrupts the storyline too much for most viewers, and
viewers never knew how long to sit still and wait for the
program to return.
The V-chip is now
ready for implementation only on analog systems. As
digital TV enters homes, however, once every data packet
can carry a V-chip code in the header, Collings expects
parents will gain the ability to use the remote control
to select an adult version of a show and then almost
seamlessly shift to a softer version if their kids walk
into the room. That's why he sees anolog implementation
as an interim solution. .