What About the V-Chip?

The Telecom Deregulation Act of 1996 mandated the all televisions larger than 13" sold after 1999 contain a "V-Chip" that allowed parents to block inappropriate programming. Proponents of the bill made rosy promises. Consumer groups pointed out that compliance was voluntary, and that the Act had no "teeth." This was the same act that deregulated cable companies, with promises of more competition and lowered rates.

Today, cable rates have skyrocketed, there is less competition in most markets, and the V-Chip is largely regarded as a joke. V-Chips do work for those programmers that comply responsibly; but just as with film ratings, programmers often stretch the point. NBC and BET announced early on that they simply woudn't participate in the ratings system. Many parents are still not aware that programs on NBC do not carry the encoding to trigger the V-Chip.

In 1998, former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani wrote:
I am especially concerned that many parents might not realize that NBC -- one of the major networks with some of the highest-rated programming on television -- does not apply content-based indicators. Such a parent, for example, may attempt to block violent programming using the "v" content-based indicator without realizing that they may also have to select an entire age-based category in order to block violent shows on NBC. Once a parent selects an entire age-based category, however, he or she loses the ability to establish different age-based categories for different types of content (e.g., the ability to restrict violence to a TV-PG level while permitting sexual content up to a TV-14 level). In this way, a parent who attempts to compensate for the NBC approach by blocking out an entire age-based category may be unable to take full advantage of the Industry system. As parents begin using the V-chip, I am hopeful that all video programming distributors will perceive the public interest in making the V-chip a more effective and easy-to-use tool for parents to block programming that they deem harmful to their children

But even if full compliance is achieved -- with all networks rating their programs fairly -- no chip will substitute for parental judgement. Tristani writes:
The V-chip will not relieve parents of the responsibility of determining what their children watch on TV. It will help them fulfill that responsibility. Those who urge parents to simply turn off the shows they do not want their children to see should welcome the V-chip. The V-chip is essentially a remote control device with a longer range. It allows parents to "turn off" programs that they believe are harmful to their children while they are at work, at a PTA meeting, or at a Saturday night movie. It will not be a substitute for parents; it will help parents do their jobs.

Helpful reading:

Parental Guidelines: The V-Chip