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Wednesday, Jan 1 1997
TV Industry Calls in Its Chips
The dynamic fairly guaranteed mutual disappointment. With congressional leaders musing throughout the fall about a new scheme for rating TV shows, the industry's own leaders attempted to pre-empt political programming with a far more tepid proposal announced just before Christmas. As a result, most of the parties to the debate stand to be dissatisfied no matter what the outcome.

Not so, however, for a low-profile Silicon Valley company by the name of Zilog.

Even should objections stall implementation, federal law will still require, as of 1998, that every new TV set sold in the United States contain a "V-chip," that small piece of programmable hardware necessary for any monitoring scheme to work. And the V-chip is Zilog's discovery (made, coincidentally, while working on another government-mandated broadcasting protocol, closed-caption TV).

Zilog won't realize a huge windfall on its 1995 creation; V-chips are built to an "open standard," which means any company with TV chip-making capabilities can manufacture them. But Zilog is the main V-chip producer and has already contracted to supply them to a number of the world's 14 or so television manufacturers. Although V-chips cost a mere $4 to $6 each, the sheer volume will substantially bolster Zilog's $230 million in annual revenues.

Embedded in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the mandatory V-chip is what launched the "voluntary" ratings lunacy in the first place -- with equal portions of farce and fantasy. It's part Alice in Wonderland, with a ragtag assortment of adversaries screeching at each other over rules to a game that doesn't make any sense, and part Wizard of Oz, playing to the same credulous belief in mechanical devices that L. Frank Baum satirized.

Oh, and one further dollop of absurdity: The FCC has the power to approve or reject any ratings plan, but it can't force the TV industry to use one.

The debate has been neatly split between the TV industry's pursuit of age-related categories (from TV-Y, for kids as young as 2, up to M, for "mature," i.e., older viewers) and a "content"-based system, where sexual imagery, violence, and bad language would be quantified (S, V, and L) on a scale of 1 to 5. "Content" was the rallying cry for most of the family and children's groups that succeeded in bending congressional ears at the outset.

Remarkably, any doubts about whether we should have government-mandated rankings at all were trampled in the stampede for soundbites. To touch on a few: The American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment advocates argue that any governmental action to curb or discourage programs' content amounts to de facto censorship. And it's presumptuous, to say the least, that one small subset group of viewers -- activist parents of young children -- should be imposing their values on the rest of the audience.

Stanton McCandlish, program director at the S.F.-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a 6-year-old First Amendment/privacy group founded to argue those issues as they pertain to the electronic media and cyberspace, worries about the government "encroaching" into other areas like news. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," he says, adding that the V-chip will only put viewers at the mercy of "the next batch of legislators."

Besides, if all this time and money is being spent out of a desire to help kids, dozens of projects out there would have far greater practical impact on children's lives: after-school programs, weekend rec centers, summer camps, to name a few that would offer them an alternative to watching the tube. "It's going to cost an incredible amount of money," says McCandlish, "for very little good."

KTVU Channel 2 General Manager Kevin O'Brien agrees. He calls the V-chip "a pink elephant" that could be thwarted by "any teen-ager worth his salt." (Reader's choice, by the way, on which of those metaphors you'd like blocked.)

Massachusetts Democratic congressman and outspoken supporter of the V-chip legislation Ed Markey is "a good friend of mine," O'Brien says. "I told him the money spent on the V-chip and ratings could be spent on [programs like] gang education." The V-chip "is just a band-aid on a bigger problem."

The ratings might be voluntary, but every American who buys a new TV set starting in 1998 will also be paying for a V-chip, whether it's activated or not. Could there be a black market in pre-1998 TV sets? Or a sub rosa TV repair specialty in having V-chips aborted? Not to mention the likelihood that the V-chip will stymie bumbling parents, millions of whom are still content to stare at their VCRs flashing the perpetual "12:00."

Implementing the ratings presents huge practical problems as well. The scheme put forward by industry schlep Jack Valenti went the broad-but-meaningless route. Days after it was announced, broadcasters admitted that the bulk of prime time programming would fall into the middling TV-PG slot, "parental guidance suggested." News and sports, two of the most egregious sources of violence, are exempt completely. And nowhere is it explained who decides what's news and what's not: Entertainment Tonight could be construed as Hollywood news. What about Cops? Or, for that matter, Hard Copy? Commercials, naturally, are another exempt category. Cartoons would most likely be rated TV-PG.

The content-based system trips up on its very precision as shown in a recent test of both approaches by Canadian TV. According to a story in the Dec. 18 Wall Street Journal, when an Ottawa TV critic set his V-chip to screen out daytime talk shows, his child was kept from seeing The Lion King. (In a further indication of the absurd degree the discussion has reached, GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, issued a press release in praise of Valenti's system, out of fear that content-screening of shows might encourage Hollywood to cut programming that portrayed homosexuals favorably.)

Locally, one of the most active groups on the issue is Children NOW in Oakland, whose liberal bona fides are attested to by the presence on its board of Victoria Rideout, whose political associations include Michael Dukakis' 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and John Van de Kamp's 1990 campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Executive Director Lois Salisbury was quoted extensively against the Valenti proposal and for the content-based scheme.

Salisbury dismissed constitutional concerns. The ratings are "comparable to food labeling, not some slippery slope toward government control," she said. "We're committed believers in the First Amendment." Besides, she said, "the industry is so big they can protect themselves."

Cold comfort, we'd say.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail:

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Phyllis Orrick


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