CHIP manufacturers can build it, but they are not sure the market will come - unless politics gets out of the way.
"It" is the v-chip, the piece of silicon that would enable parents or others to program a TV set to block shows that have too much violent or sexual content.
Both houses of Congress have passed legislation that would require TV manufacturers to put the v-chip in all new TV sets with screens more than 13 inches in size. The Senate version would also require broadcasters to implement a program-rating system, and if this isn't done, an advisory panel would be set up to explore how a rating system might work. A Senate-House compromise is not expected until at least well into October.
President Clinton has endorsed the concept.
But broadcasters and the electronics industry oppose mandatory measures, saying such demands would hold up giving the consumer a useful technology.
The essential problem, says Cynthia Upson, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Industries Association (EIA) in Washington, "is that Congress is trying to mandate something that is already being worked out voluntarily by our industry."
The EIA, among other things, establishes technical standards, through coordinated industry cooperation, for the United States electronics industry.
"No chipmaker or TV manufacturer will build equipment until they know exactly what the technical standards will be," Ms. Upson continues. "The broadcasters have said they will sue to block any mandatory law. A lawsuit would hold up development of a voluntary system for years. But left alone, our industry will have such a v-chip system agreed upon by the end of this year."
"Some of the v-chip's enemies say it can't be built,'' says Alan Marquis, vice president of consumer video for Zilog Inc., a chipmaker here in Silicon Valley. But, he says, one is being made by his firm right now, albeit for a different use. Zilog makes a chip to operate StarSight Telecast Inc.'s on-screen, interactive TV program guide. This service enables viewers to search programming by themes, such as sports or comedy, pull up capsule descriptions of all programs in progress, and more.
The chip could be readily programmed to handle the v-chip function, Mr. Marquis says.
The v-chip is not really new, says Bill Posner, president of EEG Enterprises Inc. of Farmingdale, N.Y. His firm developed an inexpensive version of a closed-caption chip in the late 1980s. The v-chip evolved in the early 1990s from that chip, he says, to handle what is called extended-data services - any use of text on a TV broadcast. Information windows, running stock prices or sports scores are examples, as are on-screen program guides.
In 1990, Congress passed a law that required TV manufacturers, by 1993, to put the closed-caption chip in all TV sets more than 13 inches in size to present captions for the deaf on the screen. Under a so-called second-source arrangement, EEG gave out licenses so other firms, as well as itself, could make the chip. Zilog is one of the licensees.
But broadcasters must send the needed caption signals before the chip can decode and display the captions on the screen.
Parents would have to learn how to operate any blocking system and integrate it into family viewing habits. The EIA is running a test-marketing program in Canada - the second phase begins later this fall, in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver - to gather consumer reactions.
"Let's face it," Mr. Posner says, "kids are better at this than we are, they might end up blocking what parents want to see."
The v-chip dispute centers on whether Congress will try to force broadcasters to rate shows and to send signals that give the ratings. "Broadcasters object to such a blanket power," says Lynn McReynolds, spokeswoman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
People do not understand the meaning for the industry of having to rate all TV shows, she says.
"What the movie industry has to rate in a year would have to be done each week," says EEG's Posner, who describes a mandatory rating system as a "nightmare."
Once Congress and the White House latched onto the v-chip concept, a good deal of misinformation and confusion spread, sources interviewed for this article agree.
For example, USA Today called several chipmakers recently who said they themselves couldn't make the v-chip, notes David Moulton, an assistant to Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts. "So the paper reported it couldn't be made" - but the paper called the wrong chipmakers, Mr. Moulton chuckles.
Representative Markey has a bill that would require a v-chip in all TV sets but would not mandate a rating system. It would help prod the industry to move faster in putting a system in place, Moulton says. How? "By ratcheting up the dialogue between parents and the producers of TV shows," he replies.
"But who would decide which Oprah show to make an 'R'?" Ms. McReynolds asks. "Or who would make the distinction between 'Schindler's List' and 'Terminator II'?" Upson says: "Perhaps we underrate the consumer." And there are many other kinds of blocking devices out there already, Posner says. The EIA has a list of some of these competing devices.
The v-chip would cost in the in the range of $4 to $6. It would replace the closed-caption chip (though continuing to provide closed captions) that costs manufacturers about $2 to $3, says Zilog's Marquis.
About 20 million to 25 million TV sets are sold each year, and up to 250 million families have sets.
It would take years, under any arrangement, before most TV sets in the US would have the v-chip.