The V Chip

‘The V-Chip’ America’s Answer to Desensitizing On February 8, 1996, President Clinton1 signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 19962, which will dramatically alter the telecommunications industry over the next several years. One of the most controversial sections of the bill was Section 551, titled "Parental Choice in Television Programming," which calls for manufacturers to include a "V-chip" in every new TV set 13 inches or larger. The V-chip is a device that will enable viewers to program their televisions to block out content with a common rating. Proponents of the system say that it will enable parents to protect their children from viewing violent and explicit material. Opponents say it violates the First Amendment rights of the broadcasters, and enforces government censorship on the television industry. The provision gives broadcasters, cable operators, and other "video distributors" one year to develop a voluntary rating system for programming that contains "sexual, violent, or other indecent material." If the industry fails to agree on a rating system within that time, the FCC is to develop a rating system based on an advisory board\'s recommendations.16 The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 19903 required all new televisions sold in the United States to contain a chip to decode closed-captioning4 signals. The basic technology needed to implement the V-chip is the same as that currently used for closed-captioning. Program rating information would be transmitted along with the television signal, and be decoded by a chip in each television. The chip would then compare the rating codes to values preset by the viewer. If the rating codes are higher than the preset values, the television signal would be blocked, and a blank screen would be displayed. Closed-captioning data is transmitted on line 21 of the vertical blanking interval, or VBI5. The VBI consists of 24 lines of a regular picture scan in which the beam is turned "off" to return to the top of the screen before painting the next frame. These 24 lines represent "dead air" time, in which no image information is sent.5 Each line of the VBI is capable of transmitting 256 bits (32 bytes) of data. Since the VBI appears once per frame, or 30 times per second, this means that each line of the VBI is capable of sustaining a bit rate of 7680 bits per second.5 The tentative plan for implementing the V-chip is to add the program rating information to line 21 of the VBI, along with the closed-captioning information. The difficulty is that line 21 is also being used for newer "extended data services" (XDS) that will be capable of providing such things as scheduling information and station call letters to the viewers. Fitting all three of these data signals into the 7.68 kbps of line 21 is one of the primary difficulties in designing the V-chip implementation.12 The magnitude of the problem will be determined by the complexity of the rating system chosen by the broadcasters. If a relatively simple rating scheme is used, small modifications could be made to the existing closed-captioning decoders to receive the rating data and block the programs. This would require no change in the architecture of the televisions, and would be almost free of cost to install. Electronic Industries Association6 (EIA) engineer, Tom Mock, says that the existing closed-captioning chips have enough memory to support a system of up to three content categories, such as "sex", "violence", and "mature content," with four levels of blocking each.12 If the broadcasting industry selects a system of more complexity, it would be far more difficult to implement. Each television would require additional circuitry to handle the decoding of the ratings. This would mean that television designers would have to alter the internal layouts of the television components, adding up to $40 to the cost of the television, depending on the manufacturer and model of television.12 Similarly, line 21 of the VBI may not have enough available bandwidth to transmit the desired programming codes if they are too complex. This would cause a more drastic departure from the closed-captioning technology. Another line of the VBI would have to be used which could complicate things tremendously. The demand for use of the VBI is growing rapidly since it is a means of rapidly transmitting