The V-Chip in Canada and the United States: Themes and Variations in Design and Deployment.

Author:McDowell, Stephen D.

In the mid-1990s, both Canada and the United States introduced policy instruments to address concerns about the effects of violent television programs on children. The policy instruments of each country focus on labeling television program content. These measures supplemented long-standing legal and self-regulatory mechanisms that controlled the content of audiovisual communication, either through promises of performance to obtain broadcast licenses, or the use of ratings for films or sound recordings.

This research considers the design and introduction of V-Chip technologies in Canada and the U.S. These technologies block programming that exceeds the viewers' chosen threshold levels of sexual content, coarse or suggestive language, or violence. These levels are indicated by program rating information provided by broadcasters and distributed along with the program signal. Although the timing and thrust of the policies pursued in Canada and the U. S. are quite similar, the specific ways in which V-Chip technologies are being deployed in each country vary significantly. In Canada, where the decision-making process was driven by regulators, the system hardware is placed in the cable decoder box. This system serves to augment existing industry self-regulation of broadcast standards. In contrast, the U.S. system -- in which the decision-making process was the result of legislation -- the system hardware is placed in the television set itself. Instead of augmenting already existing regulations, the U.S. system was introduced as a new mechanism to deal with public concerns over television content.

How can the differences between Canada and the U. S. in policies for a V-Chip technology be best understood and explained? This paper examines the processes which led to these decisions and offers an explanation that draws from institutional and political economy analysis. It argues these technology choices represent important initiatives by advocacy organizations, and by specific legislators in the U. S. and regulatory officials in Canada. However, the shape of V-Chip technology choices also reflects the constraints which policy makers face.

Debates concerning the appropriateness of the V-Chip hardware and content ratings often focus on issues such as constitutional guarantees of speech rights and freedoms. This investigation goes beyond these issues and includes the industry and technical context in each country, and the organizational and institutional aspects of legislative and regulatory processes. These conditions and processes shaped the ways in which laws, regulations, and technologies were implemented.

Elements and Commonalities in the V-Chip Mandates

In March of 1996 the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) concluded an investigation aimed at identifying ways to deal with television violence. The CRTC issued a decision setting a deadline of September 1996 for the introduction of a fully operating V-Chip system (See CRTC, 1996a; Winsor, 1996). In Canada, the V-Chip package of technologies, policies, services, and industry responsibilities, includes the following:

  1. Broadcasters would set up a standard program rating scheme working through the Action Group on Violence on Television. These age-based ratings were proposed in April 1997 (Action Group on Violence on Television, 1997), and were reviewed and approved by the CRTC in June 1997 (CRTC, 1997b). 2. Broadcasters would, by September 1996, encode programs they distribute with a signal to activate the V-Chip technology. This timetable was put off until fall of 1997 after industry requests for more time. Program advisories were broadcast in Fall 1997, even though the V-Chip technology was not finalized (See CRTC, 1996b, CRTC 1997b). 3. Program distributors, most importantly the cable companies, would be required to make V-Chip technology available to subscribers who wanted it as part of their cable signal de-scrambler box and at a "low monthly" cost. Cable companies would use appropriate marketing and communication strategies to ensure public awareness of the new service. 4. By January 1997, cable companies would be required to ensure that foreign signals they distributed were also encoded. Direct-to-home and multi-point distribution systems would also be required to encode signals (also delayed to Fall 1997). 5. An industry clearinghouse for ratings information would be set up by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. 6. The broadcasting industry was also expected to "increase the supply of top-quality, non-violent children's programs, and to further develop and continue work already underway promoting media literacy" (CRTC, 1996a). Along with addressing existing voluntary industry codes restricting television violence, new program ratings and classifications, and this new "parent empowering technology;" the policy statement also noted that public awareness and media literacy were needed. "Child protection," it was claimed, had become a "permanent part of Canada's broadcasting system."

    In the U.S., the Telecommunications Act of 1996 included a number of solutions to help adults limit exposure to in-home broadcast programming and online services (United States, 1996). Parts of the bill limited, or required full blocking of, cable television distribution of adult sexually-oriented programming for non-subscribers. The "Communi-cations Decency Act" section, later struck down by the Supreme Court, imposed penalties on those making indecent material available online to minors. The V-Chip portion of the legislation required that:

  2. All television sets with screens larger than 13 inches sold in the U.S. must have a V-Chip, starting no earlier than February 1998. The V-Chip technology would contain hardware and software to decode program ratings information and block the audio and video signal of programs, as determined by the viewer. The policy did not affect existing television sets. 2. Individual broadcasting networks and stations would rate shows, rather than industry-wide groups. Program ratings were not required. However, if the programs were rated, the rating code for the program would be transmitted in line 21 of the vertical blanking interval (VBI) by the program distributors. 3. The broadcasting industry was given the option of immediately setting up a committee to develop standards for labeling programs. 4. The FCC would establish a committee to determine a rating scheme for television programming within one year of enactment of the legislation (February 8, 1996), but only if the industry had not created a ratings standard that was determined to be acceptable by the FCC. After President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law, television executives decided to pursue the development of a common rating system (Andrews, 1996). This system was presented to the public in December 1996, and the FCC sought comment on its acceptability in March of 1997 (Federal Communications Commission, 1997c). During the spring of 1997, educators, legislators, and children's television advocates argued that the age-based ratings system proposed by the industry was not acceptable. After extensive negotiations, a revised industry proposal including more content information was introduced in July 1997. The FCC (1997a) sought comment on the acceptability of the revised proposal in September 1997. Only after a ratings system was decided upon could the final technical specifications for the V-Chip hardware be solidified, and the chips manufactured and included in new television sets (CEMA, 1997, 1996a; FCC, 1997b). In March 1998, the FCC issued final orders confirming the V-Chip technology configuration and the industry's program rating system (FCC, 1998a; 1998b).

    The Canadian and U.S. efforts share several characteristics. First, because of the claimed effects on young viewers of depictions of violence, sexual behavior, or language use, the policy debates and control mechanisms all focused ostensibly on protecting children from certain types of media content. Second, both policies applied technologies to filter content that is not illegal or obscene, but instead is merely offensive or inappropriate for certain viewers. Third, both policies tried to "balance" the objective of maintaining freedom of speech and expression with that of reducing the potential harm caused to children by certain types of media exposure. Finally, both policies potentially demonstrated the ability to direct technology design and deployment in ways that are socially effective, technologically possible and economically feasible (Baur, 1992).

    Communication Technologies and Theories of Policy Development

    The technical development and industry structure of broadcasting and telecommunications in the United States have been shaped in a large part by government subsidies, patent protection, anti-trust cases, legislation, and price and entry regulation. These actions were motivated by a variety of public objectives, such as: market stabilization, national security, infrastructure construction, and the provision of reliable services at fair and reasonable rates. Public objectives also affected the distribution of broadcasting licenses, which have been allocated with the stated goals of reflecting diverse perspectives and interests, encouraging localism, and serving the public interest (Horwitz, 1989; McChesney, 1994).

    The deployment of V-Chip technologies continues one part of the U.S. policy tradition of shaping and directing the introduction and use of communication technologies for social purposes (Smith et al., 1995). In the U.S., government decisions allocated radio-magnetic frequencies and set radio transmission technology standards (AM and FM), television transmission standards (VHF and UHF), and were key in the selection of the NTSC standard for color television. More recently, the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 was designed to enhance...

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