March 18, 1996

Television: Pace Quickens to Produce Devices to Restrict TV Viewing


Empowering parents -- that's supposed to be the reason the television industry has agreed to rate shows for sexual and violent content, and the reason Congress has required that, sometime after 1998, TV sets must include a device to allow consumers to block shows with certain ratings.

But consider two types of empowerment. One, the so-called V-chip, blocks every program that has a certain rating, the rating having been defined and applied by the shows' producers. The other device can be set to block programs, channels, time periods or shows with a certain rating. If you were a parent, which would you prefer?

Some key figures in the television industry are betting on Door No. 2.

For one thing, this second type of device -- there are several, with different brand names -- will be available soon, within months, and can be added to existing TV sets. More importantly, in their view, it shifts more responsibility for assessing programs to the viewer.

For example, parents could set the new device to block all channels except PBS and Nickelodeon. Or, they could set it to block all television completely between 3 and 5 p.m., if those are considered homework hours.

This device could also do what the V-chip is supposed to do -- that is, block all programs with a certain industry-applied rating. But it could also block National Football League games or local newscasts, if parents so desired, while the V-chip would not because the television industry has decided not to rate news or sports.

"It's hard to be against doing ratings if it's giving information to help parents make decisions about what their kids will watch," Peter Lund, the president of CBS Inc., said Thursday. "But we still don't like the idea that we are the ones triggering the V-chip, by what we code a show."

Lund said his network was considering financing the development of one or more of these alternative devices, alone or in concert with the other networks. The others, through spokespeople, declined to comment.

About 20 blocking devices, of varying degrees of crudeness, have been identified by Mediascope, a California-based nonprofit research group that has been studying alternative TV blocking technologies for a report to be issued next month. Of these, only a few have the flexibility to block codes, programs, channels and time periods, or any combination of those.

The least expensive and most compact -- about the size of a small paperback book -- of these, TV Guardian, is made by a Miami-based company called the Technidyne Corp, which expects to have it on sale in the fall, for about $130. Two others -- Intelevision, from Spruce Run Technologies Inc., and TeleCommander from Protelcon Inc. -- are expected out soon, each at about $200 and much larger.

"It allows you to use your own judgment for your family," Emily Andros, Technidyne's vice president of communications, said of TV Guardian. "And it addresses the existing market, which after all is more than 200 million TV sets. You don't have to buy a new set."

It is unclear whether the networks plan to back one of these nearly ready technologies or something still in development. Also, about 10 percent of TV sets now on the market have built-in channel-blocking or time-slot-blocking features.

Television network officials hasten to say that, regardless of what type of technology ultimately wins in the marketplace, the television industry will not go back on its commitment to developing a ratings system.

"Providing information," Lund said, "is a fair obligation to undertake."

Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, used that very argument to persuade the industry's leading executives to change their long-held stance and create ratings.

"As long as it is voluntary, the First Amendment doesn't get tortured," he said. "Really, the whole objective is very simple: give information to parents, so parents can better monitor and supervise the TV viewing of their young children. If you are over 17 and have no children, the rating system has no meaning for you."

Valenti, who has been called everything from a preacher to a statesman to a magician by the executives he finally roped into unanimous agreement last month, now heads the implementation committee. It had its first meeting last week.

"We determined we're not going to rate newscasts or sports," he said after the meeting. "We set up a smaller group to work on defining what a newscast is. Another little group will work on figuring out how we'll disseminate ratings. Another group will work on audience research."

The overall group, ranging from 15 to 25 people, depending on the meeting topic, will gather once every 10 days to two weeks, he said, adding that he guessed a rough consensus on what form the ratings should take would not emerge for "several months."

"It's been like trying to pick up mercury with a fork," Valenti said. "You think you've got everybody on board, and then a little bead of mercury slips out of your reach again.

"But," he added, "I didn't think we could ever bring into a single room all these diverse and sometimes antagonistic interests, and have them hold hands and say we'll do this. If you asked me, 'What was the most exciting part?' that was it. The unity, the seamless web of unity, was just almost sensual."

What was rapture for Valenti may still be torture for the networks, as they continue to argue over how to sort and label the vagaries of television culture: cartoon violence versus movie violence, sitcom sex versus soap opera sex and documentary profanity versus daytime talk inanity.

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