BOSTON — Some people tout the V-chip as a technological savior for our children's innocence. But others are more tentative: It could be yet another complicated technology that's even more intimidating than that forever-blinking VCR clock. What's the real story on the V-chip? It's still an emerging concept, but here are the answers to some of the most common questions.
How will the V-chip work when it gets to our living rooms?
The power to control the V-chip will most likely reside in the remote control - or in a keypad on the TV itself. Parents will type in their secret number - like a bank machine's PIN number - and be given access to an on-screen display that will guide them through a series of menus to set the parameters for household viewing. When the kids aren't around, the V-chip can be disabled by re-entering the PIN number.
The on-screen display will vary among manufacturers. But Sybase, a California-based firm that's developing one such display, promises flexibility and "point and click" user-friendliness. The Sybase program will allow entire channels to be blocked or specific times to be disallowed, say during homework time. It will even allow different settings for each child in the house: Each child would have his own PIN number to enter before turning on the TV; the chip would adjust viewing levels accordingly.
With all this flexibility, programming could be complicated. And every TV in the house needs to be programmed separately. If each TV is made by a different company, each could have a different on-screen menu.
But if things get too tricky, there's always one source of help: the kids.
What will the screen look like when the V-chip is blocking a program?
So that people won't think their TV is on the blink when the V-chip is actually doing its job, blocked programs will be replaced by the V-chip's menu - not a blank screen.
When will the V-chip be available?
Mid- to late 1998. The recently passed telecommunications reform bill says the government can't require TV makers to include the V-chip until February of 1998. Uncle Sam will likely do so soon thereafter.
What if my TV doesn't have a V-chip?
Buying a V-chip box that would sit on top of an old set will likely be possible, though expensive - up to $150.
How much will built-in V-chips cost?
Because TV-makers will have to retool their assembly lines, they say the V-chip could add $5 to $40 to the price of a set. But the actual components in the V-chip will cost only a few cents. So the final added cost is likely to be higher at first and then decline.
How does the technology behind the V-chip work?
The word V-chip is actually a misnomer. Instead, as one engineer put it, the V-chip will actually be a "family of technologies" - most of which are already in today's TVs. Currently, the signal a television receives from TV towers or the cable line is comprised of several sections. Among them: the visual element, the sound, and a small part- called the vertical blanking interval (VBI) that carries information such as closed captions.
The ratings codes used by the V-chip will arrive in the VBI. Then, using the new chip, the TV will compare the standards parents have set with the show's rating code and block anything that exceeds them.
How easy will it be for kids to devise a way around it?
TV makers and broadcasters hope they've thought of everything.
When the V-chip's blocking function is engaged, it will block not only the picture, but also the sound - to prevent kids from hearing the coarse language or violence.
Another potential pitfall is using the receiver in a non-V-chip-equipped VCR and plugging it into the audio and video ports on the back of the TV. So unless a parent turns off the V-chip, those ports will be blocked.
Also, because V-chip ratings come only about once every 1.5 seconds, the TV may have to wait for the next one to arrive after a new channel is selected. So there will be a delay in how fast the blocking mechanism engages. This delay will average about one second. So by continuously flipping back and forth between channels, a child could see snippets of a blocked show.
Will the V-chip block individual scenes or entire shows?
Technologically, the V-chip could discriminate between scenes, and blank the screen, for instance, only when a show got too violent. But the TV industry is already overwhelmed at the prospect of rating about 400,000 hours of shows each season. It's not likely to begin rating individual scenes.
Has this been test-marketed?
Yes. Two Canadian cable firms have outfitted 255 families with a V-chip. Eighty percent liked the control and choice it provided. The only complaints were about the overly simplistic matchbox-sized remote control, which had only an on-off switch. Not to worry about that in US versions - they're likely to be loaded with options and complexity.