Diet of V-chips will add weight to programme of TV censorship

Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent. With the V-chip filtering the good from the bad and the ugly on US TV, advertisers should keep an eye on programming and revenue

The man from J Walter Thompson in the US was pretty dismissive of the latest ploy for cleaning up America. “The V-chip is a farce,” he said. “This is a country with 200 million guns. If you want to do something about violence do something about that.”

But “doing something” about the US love affair with lethal weapons means tangling with the most powerful lobby group in Washington – the National Rifle Association – and with Americans’ cherished constitutional right to bear arms.

The remarkable thing is that last week President Clinton chose to tackle another of the most powerful US lobbies, the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents Hollywood studios, and another constitutional shibboleth – the right to free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Equally remarkable, media moguls like Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and the heads of the three main networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, were all prepared to troop meekly to the White House to agree a voluntary ratings system for television programmes.

They also tacitly accepted a measure now going through Congress which would require manufacturers to install the V-chip, a device costing a modest dollar, which enables parents to programme the TV to black out programmes which contain too much sex or violence, installed in all new television sets sold in the States.

Programmes will carry an electronic rating for violence and sexual content, and if the V-chip spots a show with a higher rating than it has been programmed to accept, it automatically changes channels to something milder.

It’s all a graphic illustration of the growing political pressure for something to be done about the violence on television in the States.

But even as the broadcasting big-wigs were in conclave with the President during their two-hour “television summit”, another gathering of US television and advertising executives was worrying that the V-chip could hurt their business.

This was the media conference of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, in effect fearful that US viewers have become so hooked on a diet of prime-time thrills and spills that blocking programmes with violent content will reduce overall TV viewing. As a result, advertisers will be scared off, revenues will shrink and programme quality will fall.

Delegates at the AAAA conference argued that the V-chip and associated ratings system won’t work. The man from JWT (Jerome Dominus, its director of national television) told the conference that with 300,000 hours of TV programming to assess every year, compared with just 1,200 hours of feature films, a rating system isn’t practicable.

Last month the European Parliament passed an amendment to the new European directive on television which commits TV set manufacturers on this side of the Atlantic to installing the V-chip, like their US counterparts.

So, if they’re worried in the US that the V-chip means censorship and will damage business, does that mean advertisers in Britain should be worried too?

Certainly ITV is alarmed. The ITV Association worries about the costs and practicalities of introducing a rating system. Granada reportedly fears that giving people the opportunity to pre-programme out certain kinds of material would play havoc with audience guarantees.

However, we’re still a long way from seeing a chip in every European telly. For one thing, it’s proposed only that new sets should contain them, and old chipless sets will remain in use for a good few years yet (many of them relegated to the kids’ bedrooms, which rather makes a nonsense of the whole idea of the V-chip as a “parental control” device).

Then the European Parliament’s amendments still have to get past the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. There’s a good deal of political horse-trading to be done yet, and the V-chip proposal is tied in with a scheme to enforce a quota for European-made programming, to which the UK and several other countries are resolutely opposed.

But pressure to introduce the V-chip is part of a wider trend towards greater media censorship. There’s Peter Luff’s private members’ bill to classify teenage girls’ magazines according to their sexual explicitness, for instance.

And Compuserve, the on-line computer service to which I subscribe, has just introduced a parental control system called Cyber Patrol which monitors on-line content for everything from extreme cruelty, obscene words, lewd and lascivious behaviour and anything “crudely vulgar or deficient in civility” to references to illegal drugs, political extremism, devil worship and alcohol and tobacco.

Britain’s media are already heavily regulated, by statutory bodies like the Independent Television Commission and voluntary ones like the Advertising Standards Association, and the V-chip in particular would be unlikely to make much practical difference to what British television viewers are able to watch. If the chip does have any commercial impact it’s likely to be many years from now.

But new technology and changing fashions are creating new fears in the public mind about media content, and new ways to control and restrict that content, against which advertisers need to be on their guard.

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