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The V-Chip: Why Television Will Never Be the Same

Somewhere in America, a Trojan Horse is under construction. No lumber. No loud hammering or sawing. Unlike its historical predecessor, this one takes shape quietly in a laboratory—just a network of etchings on silicon that form an unassuming computer chip. And it will forever change the way families watch television.

The famed "V-chip" is designed to screen TV shows for violent and sexual content, and block out (at the viewer's discretion) those programs considered inappropriate. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that a rating system be developed by early 1997, and that all televisions sold in the U.S. (13" or larger) be equipped with the V-chip by 1998. The Ratings Implementation Board, chaired by Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti, is currently in session. Unfortunately, only networks and industry insiders are being allowed to participate.

Meanwhile, the White House is applauding the V-chip as a technological godsend. Vice President Al Gore said, "To all those who have ever criticized the television industry, the entertainment industry, or have been tempted to, just take careful note of the fact that on this day, this industry is exercising responsibility." Is it really? Nothing in the Act calls for a toning down of explicitly violent or sexual content. For the media, it's business as usual. The V-chip will, however, place a burden of diligence on parents. Ultimately, they will be responsible for keeping gory images and nefarious characters out of the house.

Plugged In contacted a wide variety of media experts and government officials to find out what they think television will become in the "post V-chip era." Opinions vary. Advocates of the technology argue that it will help conscientious moms and dads limit their children's exposure to violent shows. Opponents warn that this electronic band-aid won't stop the hemorrhaging of an increasingly violent entertainment culture. In fact, many are concerned that the V-chip and its associated rating system may actually increase the amount of sex and violence on the public airwaves.

Hollywood writer and producer Rob Gale (Back to the Future) believes a ratings requirement will make programs "more violent and explicit," citing the downward spiral of motion pictures as a historical precedent. Motion picture warning labels such as PG-13, R and NC-17 have freed filmmakers to explore all manner of vice in greater detail. As stigmas and standards change within the culture, so do ratings, allowing artists to push the envelope even further. Television will likely follow suit. Instead of the retort, "If you don't like what you see, turn it off," the new cry of network executives will be, "If you don't like what you see, V-chip it out."

Are the networks as responsible as Al Gore claims? True responsibility would find them exercising prior restraint and producing less violence. Even Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, a sponsor of the V-chip legislation, told The Washington Times, "The television industry owes American families more than good warnings on bad programming… . The V-chip and the rating system will not eliminate the fundamental problem that is driving the deep-seated anger that so many of us feel toward television today. The V-chip is not a panacea; harmful messages on TV are harming too many kids."

Some families will embrace this Trojan Horse and its false sense of security. Others will recognize that no computer chip or secular rating system can replace biblical discernment and parental wisdom.

Published March 1996