SOUTH SURREY, Canada — Inside the book-lined study of his orderly, wisteria-draped Tudor, Tim Collings rummages around his desk until he finds it — the half-inch square of wired black plastic labeled "V." This is the apparatus that once generated wild praise from politicians, rampant fear of lost ratings and stifled free speech among broadcasters, and a glimmer of hope that technology could help save children from violence on the airwaves.
Now, eight years after Congress adopted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, about 80 million of America's 275 million television sets have one. But it's not easy to find anyone, outside of trivia contestants, who knows what a V-chip is. Rarer still are those who can actually make one work.
"Almost everyone has it. Almost nobody uses it," says Dave Arland, a spokesman for Thomson/RCA, a leading manufacturer of state-of-the-art television sets. Researcher Amy Jordan of the University of Pennsylvania calls it a "multi-system failure." Some TV manuals have nine pages of instruction for the chip. Yet your local neighborhood electronics retailer is rarely motivated to mention it as part of his standard sales spiel.
Nevertheless, like the nearly forgotten artifact uncovered among Collings' pens and papers, the V-chip is back, in a big way — part of the still snowballing reaction to a certain Super Bowl halftime dance.
Faced with the prospect of million-dollar fines for broadcast indecency and threats of license revocation after three strikes, broadcasters are suddenly embracing the device they once feared would turn viewers away from programs labeled violent or racy.
A "massive spate of public education" is underway to raise the low number of V-chip users (estimated three years ago at 7% of all parents), says Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), an original supporter of the V-chip. "There was an initial flurry of public education on the V-chip when it was initially introduced, but then it died down. This incident gives us a chance to significantly increase the number of families who use it," he says.
The renewed attention brings Collings a sense of deja vu. He can't help but notice that the V-chip and the ratings were adopted in 1996, an election year like this one. "It would be too bad if it's just a political thing," he says.
But Collings, 42, likes to look on the bright side of things. "It just might [be that] this time around," he says, "it will be taken a bit more seriously than it was to begin with."
He started paying attention to the cultural power of television in 1989 after 14 Montreal university students were gunned down by a man whose apartment was later found to contain violent videos. Then 27, Collings took the tragedy as a call to action. Rather than joining an activist group, he decided to work with the university to develop and market a software program that he later patented.
Collings designed the chip to help parents filter out objectionable programs automatically, using a ratings system. The two-tier ratings aim to assess age-appropriateness (such as TV-Y for young children and TV-MA for mature adults) and content (such as V for violence, S for sexual situations and L for language). The ratings, set by the networks for their own products, usually precede the shows or are included in listings.
Using the ratings, parents can program the controls on their sets to block shows they might find undesirable. However, the V-chip doesn't allow for context, and does not rate news or sports. So unless a set had been programmed to block all unrated shows, the V-chip system wouldn't have been able to detect or filter out Janet Jackson's breast flash during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Certainly, the renaissance of Collings' chip comes amid a changed climate: The number of cable channels has exploded, media companies have consolidated and grown more powerful, and networks compete fiercely not just with one another but with the freewheeling, envelope-pushing fare on cable. New technologies — like TiVo and other digital video recorders — offer greater at-home control. All things considered, "the era of passive television is gone," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell said last month.
Even before the Super Bowl, FCC commissioners were coping with complaints that television had become more graphic, coarse and raunchy.
"The media feels it can act with a certain level of impunity. What's happened is there's a backlash, not only from the public, but it's backed up to congressional representatives saying this is out of control," says Andy Davis, spokesman for Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Hollings is seeking a new study of the V-chip and the content ratings. If the one-time study proves the V-chip is not effective, the FCC would be required to restrict violent as well as indecent programming to times when children are less likely to be watching — 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Meanwhile, networks, cable companies and manufacturers are rushing to jump on board. Fox and Thomson/RCA are already running spots and print ads in a high-profile, national ad campaign, and Fox has promised a one-hour special on the V-chip and indecency. ABC and Pax have agreed to show the ratings icon more often and with a voice-over to alert parents to the content of a show.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. will launch a new information website by April 1, in addition to public service announcements and communication materials included in cable bills. And Comcast has announced website links to assist parents with step-by-step summaries of how to make the V-chip work, including a toll-free help line.
Skeptics suggest that cable and network broadcasters don't mind promoting a system too complex to dissuade a significant amount of viewers, or that they want to avoid public punishment and fines, or that they are complying in hopes of currying favor with lawmakers on other business.
"Ironically, the V-chip is used more as a tool to block out pressure from Congress," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a show-business watchdog group in Washington.
Alan Wurtzel, president of NBC research and media development, says the V-chip, which aims to protect children 6 to 13, hasn't affected viewership in the network's target demographic, 18- to 49-year-olds. NBC has added to V-chip inconsistency by adopting only the aged-based ratings, not the age- and content-based ratings used by the other networks. "We always felt the ratings were extremely ambiguous and cause more confusion than anything," Wurtzel says. Still, the network supports the notion of the V-chip, he says, and will promote it on its website.
Father of the V-Chip Collings is a familiar face in his neighborhood in South Surrey, an affluent suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, where he takes his three children swimming and frequents the local gourmet cafe.
But his identity as the father of the V-chip is largely unknown. When a waitress learns he's being interviewed about his invention, she beams with surprise. Collings blushes.
Collings grew up on an Ontario sheep farm with four brothers, two adopted Costa Rican sisters, one television channel and one set, used one night a week, Saturday, to watch hockey. These days he still likes to watch hockey, which he plays, and if he's still awake, "Saturday Night Live." Following the footsteps of his father, a civil engineer, he consulted on several far-flung projects and eventually settled in Vancouver, where he taught technical engineering at Simon Fraser University.
In retrospect, Collings thinks he was naive to believe his software program would be swiftly embraced as a positive way for people to sort the good from the dreck.
Although it seems almost quaint now, at the time, parental fears focused on violence in shows like "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." Collings says he and his V-chip got sucked into a political debate that taught him much about the 1st Amendment and the unintended consequences of technological innovation.
Politicians, he says, seized on negative, hot-button issues, changing the meaning of the "V" from viewer control to violence. He watched the lengthy process and compromises involved in establishing the ratings system, which he calls "watered down to be as ineffective as possible."
Even some expected supporters maligned the system, suspecting that it missed the real problem. ("I liken it to the air bag," says Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council. "How about getting rid of drunk drivers?")
Swiftly educated in the real world, Collings learned to stress that the V-chip was only a tool to help parents, not replace them, and to refine his idea of success as a long and bumpy road. One needed improvement, he says, is in the accuracy of program ratings; another is overcoming the frustration older parents feel when trying to program their sets.
"I have a PhD. I use very complicated computer applications," says researcher Jordan, 42, of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "I was flummoxed by the V-chip application. I had to get some help from my research partner."
Jordan believes that technological troubles might fade with the next generation. But a separate problem is that the average home has three or four television sets, Jordan says.
"It's likely only one, if any, has a V-chip in it," she says. "If a child wants to see something blocked on one, she can saunter over to the other and find it there. A quarter to a third of all children [have] TVs in their bedrooms."
Typically, Americans add a TV, rather than replace it, she says. "Where does the old TV go? In the kids' bedroom."
Collings acknowledges that his system can be tricky to use, even for technical engineers.
"My children are 8, 10 and 12. What's appropriate for the 12-year-old isn't appropriate for the 8-year-old. There's a delay in the picture when the V-chip makes its decision," evaluating the ratings signal and then blocking or allowing a program, he said. "It has this other effect if it's blocked. My kids are going, 'What's on there? Why can't I see it?' "
In that case, "you can punch in a PIN to override it" and check what they're missing, he said. "After a while, that debate goes away."
But then there's the problem of blocking unrated shows, thus filtering out news and sports. "So, it's a bit cumbersome. As a first stab in implementing the technology, it's not bad. It does what it's supposed to do. It can be a lot better, that's for sure. And it will be a lot better. And it will take some time."
Millionaire on Paper Though the V-chip has made him a millionaire on paper, Collings believes the big payoff will be in the future.
His patent covers not only the original V-chip but also future modifications to the chip to work with new or revised rating systems. And, in recent years, while Collings has been working on "something new in biometrics," he has also partnered up to sell licenses to manufacturers and refined his system to filter in, rather than block out, certain programs.
Using what he calls "the open V-chip," viewers can set up personal profiles of their interests (gardening, cooking, sports) with, if they choose, a published guide of suggested programs from certain interest groups (for instance children's, arts, religious or political groups).
In his office, he demonstrates the new option on a computer screen. Once the codes are entered, a screen pops up: "Welcome back, Laura," it says, using his daughter's name. "These programs should interest you." Half a dozen shows about soccer and music scroll up.
"The open V-chip should become the standard in all new DTV sets, replacing what is there now," he says, referring to digital television sets.
Basically, he still believes television is a "wonderful resource."
All the gratuitous sex, the horrific violence, the coarse dating shows, are like drops of red dye in a glass of water, Collings suggests. "It turns the whole glass of water a light shade of pink." He doesn't believe anything can change it back.
"Technologies come and go, lobbyists come and go. But TV keeps pushing the standards of decency," he says.
But there's no doubt in his mind that viewers will become more active. "It's all moving to this. It has to. There's too much out there. I don't know how many people will want to surf around for stuff ad nauseam without any sort of reasonable way to manage it."