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Not Ready for Prime Time : V-Chip Testers Say Device Has Bugs, Is Inconvenient

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton and Congress want every television set in America outfitted with a “V-chip” that can block out violent programs, but Gilbert and Pauline Villeneuve actually had one in their home for three months and reached a somewhat different conclusion.

“It’s not ready. It’s cumbersome and annoying,” Gilbert says.

“Basically a nuisance,” Pauline says.

The Villeneuves, parents of two small boys, were among 65 Edmonton families who volunteered to the local cable company in January for the first trial of the controversial device. Like most participants, they decided that although the V-chip remains alluring in theory, as a practical matter it is far from a magic bullet solution to television violence.

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Interviews with participants and cable industry executives turned up complaints mainly about technical problems and inconvenience. Clearly, if you have trouble programming your VCR, you will have trouble activating the V-chip in its current incarnation. But there were also concerns about inconsistencies in ratings and objections that entire programs were blocked out because of a single violent scene.

When it was all over, only 25% of the 58 families who completed the trial said they would buy a V-chip in its current format, if it were available.

Shaw Communications, the Calgary-based cable company that conducted the test, believes the glitches were start-up problems typical of any new technology and is pressing ahead with a second phase, using equipment modified to meet the objections found in Edmonton. Last week, about 250 families in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa got V-chip devices. Two other cable companies will join Shaw in the new trial.

“We’re on the right track,” says Alan Sayegh, Shaw’s corporate programming director. “The whole idea here is putting censorship where it belongs, with the parents.”

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The experiment has the enthusiastic backing of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, whose chairman, Keith Spicer, is a longtime campaigner against violence in children’s programming.

“We have, in the friendliest possible way, pestered the cable companies” to introduce it, Spicer said in an interview.

Both houses of Congress recently passed bills requiring V-chip installation in new television sets, and Clinton has endorsed the device. But Spicer and the telecommunications commission have been pushing the chip, developed by Tim Collings, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, since 1992.

Nearly 80% of Canada’s 10.28 million television households are hooked into cable, which gives them access to the U.S. networks and many American specialty channels. Thus, concern about television violence fuses two formidable bugaboos in Canadian life: fear of crime and fear of American cultural dominance.

“In Canada, we have a different history when it comes to violence and a difference in values,” Spicer said. ". . . The image Canadians have of their country is the Peaceable Kingdom. We fall short of it, but our ideal is the peaceful, tolerant country.”

It was mere coincidence that the V-chip was tried out first in Edmonton, an agriculturally rooted community of 888,500 on the prairies of northern Alberta that seems as far spiritually from the values of Hollywood as it is geographically from Los Angeles. Alberta is the most politically conservative province in Canada, and Edmonton is its capital. But Richard Helm, television critic for the Edmonton Journal, says there has been no particular outcry here about violence and sex on television.

The trial, which lasted from January into the spring, was limited to a single station, a premium pay service called Superchannel that is the Western Canada equivalent to HBO or Showtime. Superchannel mainly carries first-run, uncut movies, but it also has some original programming that shows on U.S. cable networks, including “Dream On,” an adult comedy series, and “Outer Limits,” a science fiction anthology.

The V-chip works by reading information coded into a program on the same band that carries closed-captioned information. In Edmonton, each presentation on Superchannel was coded on a numerical scale of 1 to 9 in three categories: violence, language and sexual content and nudity. The higher the number, the more explicit the program.

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Viewers could set their V-chips to read the coding in each of the three categories. For example, if the chip was set on 4 for violence, the device would block from viewing any program rated above that number for violence. Instead, a black rectangle would fill most of the screen.

Because Superchannel shows mainly movies, programming Vice President Richard Davies and his staff were able to draw on the ratings the films received for theatrical release in formulating the V-chip code numbers. Canada has a movie rating system similar to that in the United States.

A movie given an R rating in Canada, meaning restricted to adult viewing, would automatically receive a 7 in all three V-chip categories. The number could be revised upward in a specific category if an additional warning, for example of extreme violence, was attached to the rating.

The rating system had the virtues of simplicity and speed and erred on the side of caution, Davies said. It also permitted the staff to avoid having to make judgments on the context of violence and sex in films. But Davies acknowledged that it made for what may have been misleading codings in some cases, puzzling some viewers.

“I kind of wanted to see for myself how someone else would rate what we watched,” said Jo Dechambre, a catering supervisor and mother of three whose family was involved in the test. “I was surprised the V-chip was stricter than I would have been.”

A survey of participants showed that, as the test went on, viewers tended to adjust their V-chip levels upward to more permissive levels or stopped using it altogether.

Limiting the trial to a premium pay channel that does not depend on advertising for revenue also dodged one of the main sources of controversy about the V-chip--its potential impact on commercial broadcast programs.

Sayegh acknowledged that commercial broadcasters have been wary of the trials. “The whole thing scares broadcasters from an economic standpoint,” he said. “They don’t want shows that are not going to be available to a large number of eyeballs because they’ve been screened out” by the V-chip.

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Although participants in the Edmonton trial did raise questions about ratings criteria, the main complaints were that the device was unreliable--blacking out programs it was not supposed to--and unwieldy to use. To activate the V-chip, viewers had to manipulate a series of small buttons on the back of the set every time they wanted to turn it on.

“My husband hated it,” Dechambre said. “Instead of getting up and fiddling with it, he just watched sports.”

The experience did lead Dechambre to think more about the viewing habits of her three children, ages 2, 4 and 6. Since the V-chip was removed in June, she has trained them to tell her when a program ends so she can monitor what might come on next.

But she also wondered at times “whether I was shielding them from too much. . . . I think they do have to see some things, to prepare them for the future.”

Superchannel’s Davies argued that even with the problems, the Edmonton experiment was a success.

“What we did in this first stage is we showed it could work, mostly,” he said.


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