The controversial V-chip, which has become a major element of the raging debate over television ratings, is still more of a political lightning rod than a consumer product.
Four years after Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) asked an electronics industry trade group in Washington to come up with a technology that would allow parents to block objectionable television programs, the V-chip remains a collection of software and circuitry that is not yet ready for prime time.
To be sure, several products already allow parents to electronically block TV programs. That includes sets made by Zenith Corp. and others as well as add-on devices such as the TV Guardian made by Florida-based Technodyne.
But those products cost more than ordinary TV sets and require users to research the content of programs independently to decide which shows or channels to block. Also, unlike the emerging V-chip system, the existing devices do not allow parents to block out all programming of a specific type.
Under landmark telecommunications law passed earlier this year, by February 1998, manufacturers must install devices in all their TV sets that will electronically detect the TV ratings and prevent children from watching any programs that their parents want to block.
With the unveiling Thursday of a television industry ratings system, television set manufacturers are ready to begin retooling their plants to produce sets with V-chips within weeks, officials said.
"We are ready as soon as the FCC accepts the plan," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn., an Arlington, Va., trade group that represents major TV set manufacturers. "But this can't be an experiment. If this is truly a consensus plan, they [the TV industry] have submitted, then we are ready to go ahead."
Although the technology to electronically block TV shows has been around since the 1980s, most manufacturers have balked at building the devices into new sets because the estimated $5 to $50 additional cost would push the price above comparable sets offered by competitors that did not include the devices.
V-chip technology would operate much the same way existing TV microchips are used to display closed-captioning messages.
A special microchip would intercept ratings data transmitted in the "vertical blanking" lines or black bars that roll like a cylinder on the screen when a TV set looses its vertical hold.
A parent could then use the TV's remote control to punch in a code so the TV set would only display programs suitable for a certain age level. The microchip would shut down the television set if it detected any shows that exceeded that level.
While the TV set makers and television networks profess that they are ready to introduce such technology, the market for sets equipped with V-chips may be slow to emerge, industry experts conceded.
"Television sets generally last eight to 15 years," said John Smiley, a spokesman for Zenith, a major television manufacturer based in Glenview, Ill. "There are going to be a lot of sets around without the V-chip for a long, long time."
What's more, the television industry is also scheduled to switch over to a new digital broadcasting technology in the next decade that will lower the cost of including V-chip technology but sharply increase the overall price consumers pay for the more advanced television sets, which promise sharper, cinema-like pictures and compact-disk-quality sound.