Think of the children! Get ready for another battle over the v-chip

Media companies may be facing a new headache from Washington. The Federal Communications Commission is set to release a report next week about technology to protect children from violent and sexually explicit content, also known as the v-chip. The report may lead to changes to the ratings systems for movies, TV programs, and video games, because the content-blocking technology needs the designations to work properly.

In other words, the FCC is seeking a V-chip 2.0: a better technology that lets consumers block objectionable content. The FCC report, mandated in a bill enacted by Congress last year, may be issued as soon as Monday.The FCC declines to comment, but Industry officials sound less than thrilled. And who can blame them?
The v-chip already has had a contentious history. Legislation mandating the technology was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, at the behest of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and other lawmakers worried about the exposure of children to violence in the mass media. At the time, there were concerns that it would lead to greater censorship.

Instead, it led to confusion. A 2007 FCC report found that the v-chip failed to "protect children from being regularly exposed to violence," as The New York Times noted. A Zogby poll found that 88 percent of respondents did not use the v-chip, or other cable control boxes.

"There is a potential for confusing parents," says Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "You don't want to make all TV sets obsolete. There is a law of unintended consequences."

TV ratings were already changed once in the mid-1990s, to accommodate critics who "screamed bloody murder," Wharton says. Dan Isett, director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, disagrees. Studies have shown that two thirds of ratings were inaccurate, he says, making it pointless for parents to use any devices to monitor their children's media consumption. Isett also notes that many homes lack DVRs to assist parents in blocking content.

The PTC also rejects the argument that a uniform ratings system would confuse parents. "Everybody says the v-chip is a failure, except the entertainment industry," he said. "A more universal ratings system will be easier to understand."

The battle over content control -- which some may see as censorship -- is rated VP: very political. People nostalgic for these battles from the 1980s might find the current fight quaint, reminiscent of Dee Snider, the long-tressed Twisted Sister lead singer, testifying before Congress about profane pop lyrics. If Snider decides to repeat his memorable visit to Capitol Hill, than all bets are off.
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