As children's advocates and network television executives converge today on Capitol Hill to air their views on the effectiveness of the two-month-old television ratings system, a key voice will be absent.
Tim Collings, the inventor of the V-chip, isn't attending today's Senate Commerce Committee hearings. But lately Mr. Collings, a professor of engineering at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, has lent his voice to the chorus of criticism being leveled against the age-based rating system.
"It's ludicrous," says Collings, who is disappointed the new ratings - modeled after the movie-ratings system and designed to be used with the V-chip - label programs without describing objection- able content.
In the US, the "V" in V-chip is known as short for "violence," although Collings points out that it actually stands for "viewer control." He says that the age-based ratings now being tested on a trial basis don't offer viewers the kind of control he envisioned.
The issue is truth in packaging, he says, offering this analogy: "It doesn't make sense to print on the side of a food package, 'You may want to reconsider eating this food product because it may contain things that are harmful.' " Likewise, he says, "Suppose you were watching the news and the weatherman came on and said, 'Warning! There's severe weather approaching.' Then ended the report."
Besides, he says, "If a broadcaster decides the difference between mild violence or intense violence to rate a program, why can't they make that information available to parents?" The reason broadcasters haven't, he says, is "they think advertisers will jump ship."
If it were up to him, Collings would offer US and Canadian viewers four categories to rate content: age, violence, language, and sexuality. The system has already been tested in Canada, where viewers in some surveys found it easy to use, he says. At the same time, "A majority agreed that a movie ratings-type system is inadequate and often misleading."
American television viewers seem to agree: A recent survey by the Media Studies Center/Roper in New York found that when given a choice, 73 percent of viewers favor a content-based system, compared with 15 percent who prefer age-based ratings.
A conservative Christian and former Sunday school teacher, Collings was raised on a 100-acre sheep farm in Stratford, a small town near Toronto. Growing up in the rural Canadian countryside, only two broadcast channels reached his home. He spent winters playing hockey and summers baling hay. "Television was never a big part of my life," he says.
Until Dec. 6, 1989. On that day a lone gunman shot to death 14 female engineering students at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. "It had a profound effect on me," he recalls.
When investigators found a cache of "violent video" in the suspect's apartment, Collings embarked on his own investigation of the effects of visual violence, reading dozens of television research studies and several books on broadcasting history.
His conclusion was that television, in varying degrees, indeed causes "shifts in behavior." In 1991 he developed the first prototype of the V-chip.
In addition to choosing what not to watch, Collings believes television viewers should become media literate and take personal responsibility for what they do watch. "It's important for people to look beyond the headlines. They have to make an effort to figure out for themselves what's going on, whether it's coverage of abortion or the federal deficit," he says.
The father of three says that his first responsibility as a parent is to ensure his children are raised without damaging influences. "I can't protect my kids from everything, but I want to educate them according to my values. I can't do that without information about what's coming into my own home."