WASHINGTON — The nation is now one step closer to the era of Big Mother after the FCC voted Thursday to approve a technical standard for the so called V chip, which is designed to give parents the ability to block television programming based on its violent or sexual content.
In a surprise move, the FCC also required V chips to be installed in computers if they are capable of receiving and displaying television pictures.
In addition, the FCC said the chip should be able to block movies on premium cable channels based on their Motion Picture Assn. of America rating.
FCC vote praised
The so called father of the V chip, Rep. Ed Markey (D Mass.), praised the FCC for its vote Thursday.
“America can now proceed with the distribution of the V chip — a technology which is likely to prove at least as important for television as the seat belt has proven for the automobiles and the safety cap has proven for medicines,” Markey said.
However, at a Capitol Hill press conference, Markey also said it was disappointing that NBC and BET have refused to sign on to the content code, which has now been approved by the FCC.
In a 5-0 vote Thursday, the FCC took what many hope to be its final action on the V chip and its companion rating system, which supporters say will “empower” parents who want to use the technology to stop their kids from watching programming that they find objectionable.
Content rating transmitted
Under the FCC’s rules, television stations must transmit a show’s content rating along with the show itself. The V chip will be able to decode the rating and block its display, if it has been programmed to do so.
“Parents have enough to worry about without having to worry about what their children are watching on television,” said FCC chairman William Kennard.
Although the FCC broadened the V chip requirement to also cover computers, it only covers those computers that have a television tuner and can display TV signals.
The FCC stated affirmatively that it had no authority to require ratings of material on the Internet and emphasized that the V chip is not designed to screen Internet material. Although there is only one computer model currently on the market that can receive and display broadcast signals, more are expected to hit retail shelves as broadcasters make their own conversion to digital television.
As expected (Daily Variety, March 3), the FCC also gave TV set makers until July 1, 1999, to put the first V chip sets on the market. The FCC said 50% of the sets on store shelves must have V chips by the 1999 deadline. By Jan. 1, 2000, all sets with 13-inch or larger screens must come equipped with the blocking chips, decreed the FCC.
Also as expected, the FCC did not officially address the fact that both NBC and cabler BET are refusing to employ the content code that is now in use by the rest of the television industry.
NBC execs are quick to point out that they are rating their programming — they are just not using the content notations for sex and violence that the rest of the industry put into use last October.
In response to NBC, although the network was not officially named, the FCC is encouraging TV set makers to include a display message that warns parents who use the chip that not all TV shows are covered by the rating system.
Commissioner Susan Ness said the warning is necessary because “not everyone has subscribed to the ratings system and that could be a real surprise for parents.”
NBC, BET get support
In contrast to his fellow commissioners, the FCC’s Harold Furchtgott-Roth said both NBC and BET deserved to be applauded for their refusal to sign on to the industry content code. “I salute the courage and fortitude of those programmers, such as NBC and BET, who have resisted political pressure to effectively convert these voluntary guidelines into mandatory regulations,” Furchtgott-Roth said.
Furchtgott-Roth, a devout adherent to the law of market values, added that it should be up to viewers to decide what rating system to use.
“Programming distributors should look to their own viewing audience, rather than to the government, to determine what type of ratings, if any, to employ,” he said.
No action against NBC
For his part, agency topper Kennard said it was “premature” to consider any potential action to take against NBC if it continues its holdout against the current rating system. Kennard acknowledged that under its current rules he does not have the authority to take any action against NBC.
Although Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R Ariz.) has suggested that the FCC refuse to renew NBC’s licenses to operate TV stations, Kennard said Thursday that such a drastic measure would require a change of the agency’s current rules.
Joining Markey at the congressional press conference was Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D Conn.,) who praised the FCC approval of the V chip technical standard and its companion rating system, but took the television industry to task for failing to hold itself up to higher moral standards.
“Today brings good news for millions of parents who feel adrift on the rising tide of sex, violence and vulgarity that is flowing into their homes through the television and, too often, washing over their children,” he said.
Lieberman also criticized the networks for giving themselves an easy ride when it comes to rating programs.
“I want to challenge (MPAA president) Jack Valenti, who reports there have been few complaints from parents about the application of the ratings, to … closely examine whether Hollywood is leveling with America’s families about the content of television programming,” Lieberman said.
The MPAA had no immediate comment on Lieberman’s suggestion Thursday.