V-chip more than a concept in Canada

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The Gate

Sunday, March 10, 1996 · Page D 1
© 1996 San Francisco Examiner

V-chip more than a concept in Canada

North of the border, technology to block TV programming may be in place by fall

David Armstrong

The heralded V-chip that could radically change the way American families watch television came into existence because of public revulsion over a massacre, a 13-year-old's pitch to a politician on live TV, the inventiveness of a concerned young professor and persistent lobbying by a veteran former journalist.

None of these things originated in the United States. They occurred in Canada, where the V-chip - a household electronic device that allows parents to block TV shows designated as too violent or sexually explicit for small children to watch - was invented and is already in the final stage of consumer testing.

A decision on how the V (for viewer control) chip will be rolled out in Canada is expected Thursday. Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission chairman Keith Spicer, on a recent visit to San Francisco, said the V-chip could be available commercially there as early as Sept. 1, three years before it is expected to appear here.

The sweeping Telecommunications Act of 1996, which President Clinton signed last month, calls for a V-chip to be embedded in new TV sets by 1999, with a chip-related ratings system for TV shows in place by January 1997.

"I'd guess we're a couple of years ahead (of the U.S.)," says Spicer, who pushed for development of the technology, brokered a Canadian program ratings system and encouraged testing. The tests, conducted over the past year, give Canada a growing body of experience with the chip, which many Americans wrongly believe doesn't even exist.

"I won't say our solutions are perfect or exportable," Spicer allows. "But we've addressed the problems and dealt with them in a practical way."

"What we were targeting is gratuitous, glamorized violence directed at children under 12," Spicer says. "We're not interested in what adults watch."

Spicer, a former broadcaster and editor of the daily Ottawa Citizen, decided something had to be done about media violence after 14 female engineering students were slaughtered by a gunman in a University of Montreal lecture hall in 1989.

"The killer of these girls was found to have a huge collection of ultra-violent videos," Spicer says.

The shooting stunned Canada, which thinks of itself as a kinder, gentler nation. Canada has a homicide rate one-third that of the U.S. and strict gun-control laws.

Spicer started reading up on the possible coarsening effects of media violence on young children. Then he watched in fascination as a 13-year-old Quebec girl appealed to then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on national TV.

As Spicer recalls it, an 11-year-old friend of the girl's had been murdered. So, the youngster collected 1-1/4 million signatures condemning violence, presented her petition to Mulroney on live TV and asked him to sign. He signed.

"That strengthened our hand enormously," Spicer says.

Some time after, Spicer received a fax from an electrical engineering professor at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University by the name of Tim Collings. Collings had an idea for a device that would block TV shows that parents deemed unsuitable for impressionable young children. Thus, the shows could still be made and shown, uncensored, to adults and older kids.

With the CRTC's blessing, Collings landed a $250,000 grant from Calgary-based Shaw Communications Inc. to develop a prototype. Shaw, with 1.5 million cable subscribers, and Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc., with 2.5 million, then put the V-chip to the test.

Rogers is now conducting the third and final field test in half a dozen Canadian cities, using 130 families and 11 telecasters, including two American TV stations near the U.S. border. The wrap-up tests run through May.

It was Collings' V-chip that President Clinton held up for the cameras when he signed the Telecommunications Act. It is unclear whether Collings' V-chip, elements of which he has patented, will be adopted as is or adapted for American use. It is, in any case, the first V-chip in play.

"I really felt that something needed to be done," says Collings, a 34-year-old father of three children from 8 months to 4 years old. Collings acknowledges that he isn't sure if violent programs inure kids to real-life blood and guts, but "I kind of believe that it's a factor."

"I decided the best way to encode the information was with the way closed captioning is used in broadcasting," Collings says. "There are all kinds of additional spaces within that protocol. I invented a method of inserting additional data."

Canadian producers participating in V-chip field testing electronically encode and rate their own shows - except for news, documentaries and sports - working from an industry-wide list of criteria. The ratings code signal is inserted into the black bar between each frame of video and "read" by the V-chip, which is actually a small circuit board.

Presently, the V-chip sits in a set-top box akin to a cable converter. Eventually, new TV sets with digital technology will use enabling software instead of a chip. Equipping every family that wants a set-top box or wired TV set will take about 10 years, Collings estimates, adding that the converter should initially retail from $45 to $75.

The V-chip, Collings says, is activated by a remote control device about the size of a matchbox that "can fit on the end of a keychain." A parent presumably carries the remote, the better to foil clever young hackers.

The technology is linked to a ratings grid devised by the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association, which rates movies.

In addition to five letter grades similar to our PG, R and so on, an on-screen information grid displays six numbers, running from 0 to 5. A 0 signifies harmless fun; a 5 means gore, smut, rough language or adult themes lurk ahead.

The user employs the remote to select the maximum level of tolerance. Every adult-oriented R5 show, say, could be blocked. Once blocked, a TV screen displays only the grid on a black background.

Although many adults throw up their hands in exasperation when they try to program their VCRs, Collings claims his device is a snap to use: "It takes parents about 30 seconds to program and 10 seconds to unlock."

The Canadian cable industry says the V-chip works well.

Alison Clayton, a childrens' TV producer and consultant to Rogers Communications, says "Like anything, when you don't know what's involved, you're a bit hesitant. Once companies get involved, they're very, very proud that they've offered this to their viewers."

The Rogers and Shaw companies recently issued a statement saying they "fully support" the V-chip and ratings to "offer parents a simple way of blocking out programming that they choose as inappropriate for their children."

Clayton cites studies showing that 70 percent of parents in an earlier test said the V-chip gave them "a suitable level of control," especially for their 4-to-13-year-olds. About 55 percent said they would buy a commercial V-chip.

"The (Canadian) cable industry is ready to go with the technology," declares Clayton, who maintains the V-chip will add only $1 or $2 to monthly cable bills and be provided to consumers who ask for it at cost.

In Canada, the V-chip and ratings system was augmented by discreet, one-on-one meetings between Spicer and entertainment industry executives whom he implored to lighten up on body bags and gun fights in their shows.

According to Spicer, the three-step approach is working.

"It is now socially unacceptable for Canadian broadcasters to have gratuitous violence aimed at children. All we had in mind was getting the industry to think twice," he says.

Spicer praises Clinton's apparent success with American media moguls, who agreed Feb. 29 to come up with a TV ratings system, terming it "a major breakthrough." Spicer hopes, he says, to see the creation of a joint U.S.-Canadian V-chip and ratings system, since most major movies and many shows on Canadian TV are made in America.

Spicer suggests that Hollywood, learning from history, will come to see the virtues of ratings and V-chips. Detroit automakers resisted installing and promoting safety features in cars, Spicer notes. Now they brag about them.

"It's very good marketing to respect your customers," Spicer says. "To broadcasters I would say, "There are a lot of parents and kids among your customers.' "

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