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Debate on 'V-Chip' Moves From 'If' to 'How'

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Washington

Support among federal lawmakers for technology that would give parents an easy way to screen out violent television shows is so strong that the debate is turning to the question of how such a system would be put in place.

A system devised by the broadcasting industry itself is a more desirable alternative than government-managed content ratings, participants at a panel discussion on the issue said here last week.

Separate telecommunications bills approved by the House and Senate contain provisions that would require new television sets to include a microchip capable of screening out shows rated as violent, and the mandate is likely to be retained in the final version if the legislation passes. The bills encourage broadcasters to come up with a ratings system or face a federally developed system. President Clinton has also endorsed the idea.

The microchip technology has been dubbed the "v-chip" for violence chip or "c-chip" for content chip. If activated, it would prevent shows carrying an embedded violence rating from appearing on the set it is installed in.

While there has been debate about whether workable v-chip technology is ready, the more contentious issue is how television shows would be rated for violence.

"How do we strike that balance between the First Amendment and common sense?" Harris N. Miller, the president of the Information Technology Association of America, asked at the panel discussion, which was sponsored by the American Center for Children's Television and Northwestern University's Annenberg Washington Program.

V-chip supporters have cited the movie industry's voluntary ratings system and a new ratings system for home video games as successful examples of self-policing.

'How Much Blood?'

Donald F. Roberts Jr., the chairman of Stanford University's communication department, said the system developed by the video-game industry might translate especially well to broadcasting. Under that system, game producers rate their own products for violence, adult language, and nudity or sexual themes. The system includes financial sanctions for producers who issue misleading ratings, and most major toy chains now refuse to sell games that are not rated, Mr. Roberts noted.

"Does the software depict blood and gore? We have strict definitions," said Mr. Roberts, who advised an industry council that set guidelines for the ratings. But he acknowledged that differences over violent content are inevitable.

"People argue about how much blood you have to have before it becomes gore," he said.

The television industry opposes government-mandated v-chips and violence ratings. The four major commercial television networks have proposed an alternative system that would require parents to purchase a device that would be programmed like a videocassette recorder.

"We do not dispute the need for parents to have descriptive information" about TV shows, said Peggy K. Binzel, a senior vice president of News Corp., which owns the Fox television network. "What we disagree with is government involvement."

The v-chip is "a blunt instrument that is so simplistic that it simply will not work in the real world," she added.

The networks' proposed device would require more effort by parents, Ms. Binzel said, but they could program it to block out, for example, all late-night programming or a show they considered objectionable.

She questioned how a ratings council could keep up with the volume of new programming churned out on today's multitude of television channels and networks.

But v-chip supporters say that parents do not have the time to monitor their children's television viewing effectively and that the networks' proposed device would be just as complicated to program as most VCRs.

They also contend that the networks oppose v-chip technology primarily because it could cost them some viewers--and thus advertising revenue.

Canadian Test

So far, only one major real-world test of v-chip technology has been conducted. Kenneth C.C. Stein, a senior vice president of Shaw Communications Inc., a Canadian cable-television provider, told the panel here that about 50 families in Edmonton, Alberta, were given devices earlier this year that allowed them to block out certain programming on a channel similar to Home Box Office or Showtime in the United States.

The project was meant to test the technology more than a ratings system, and the movie channel was willing to rate its films on a nine-point scale for violence, language, and sexual content. Parents could set the devices anywhere on the nine-point scale, with nine being the most violent or mature.

One factor that proved especially hard to measure was the extent to which a film dealt with mature themes overall, Mr. Stein said. "That was a big concern for parents," he added.

Mr. Stein said parents reacted well to the system, and the company is working on revisions.

According to press reports, however, some families found the technology so cumbersome they stopped using it. Others reported they adjusted their settings to allow more programming.

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