When Maxine Lawson first suspected that her two-year-old son, Caden, might be picking up nasty habits from television, she was not sure what to do about it. "If he caught a glimpse of something like wrestling, he'd start kicking and pushing," the Toronto accountant recalls. So when Lawson was asked last year to participate in a pilot study of the so-called V-chip (short for violence chip), she readily agreed. The microchip, developed by Simon Fraser University engineering professor Tim Collings, allows parents to block out TV programming that contains violence, sex or coarse language. And it has the energetic support of Keith Spicer, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), who announced last week that Canadian broadcasters have until September to establish a rating system to be used with the V-chip. Lawson applauds the move. "The chip is really helping," she says. "I'm less concerned about what Caden is watching when I can't be there with him."
The announcement was a victory for Spicer, who has pushed for increased controls on TV violence since 1992. That was the year that then-14-year-old Montrealer Virginie Larivière, motivated by the murder of her sister the year before, gathered 1.3 million signatures on a petition opposing TV violence. By 1993, under pressure from Spicer, Canadian broadcasters had produced an anti-violence code and established an industry-run council to police it. Last fall, the cable industry issued a guide to help parents assess many of the programs their children might be watching. As Spicer told Maclean's, "This was a show of unanimity among Canadians that was quite astonishing."
While the new deadline was hailed by many as a step in the right direction, the announcement was also greeted with a flood of questions: How should standards for TV violence be set? Can the Canadian system be harmonized with one that is currently being developed in the United States? And, perhaps most important, will the V-chip really help children avoid the negative influence of TV, or merely give their parents a false sense of security?
In the United States, the TV ratings debate was kicked off last month after President Bill Clinton signed a bill that makes V-chip technology mandatory in all new televisions with screens at least 13 inches wide within the next two years. Regulators and programmers in the United States are already embroiled in discussions over how to rate programs that change from episode to episode or that, though nonviolent, are too mature for children. Meanwhile, a glimpse of how the system may work is already available in Canada. Early last year, Canada's biggest cable companies, Shaw Communications Inc. of Calgary and Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc. (which owns Maclean's), began testing the credit-card-sized chip in 255 households in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa.
The rating system, developed by Rogers consultant Alison Clayton, uses four general categories - violence, sexuality, language and audience category (the CRTC directive is limited to violence alone) - and six levels. Participating broadcasters encode their programming using a numeric rating. The cable company then supplies participants with a converter containing the V-chip and a remote control: the converter blocks out programming according to levels set by the consumer. "The concept and the fact that it works has received an 80-per-cent approval rating," Clayton says. The main concerns so far, she adds, are with the button pad, which some users find too small to use comfortably - Collings designed it to fit on a key chain.
The final rating system, however, will be developed by the broadcast industry's Action Group on Violence on Television. Group member Michael McCabe, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, says the industry supports using the chip but is concerned about harmonizing Canadian and American standards, especially since the deadlines for new systems are different in each country. "It will be confusing for consumers if a program like the X-Files has one rating on Global and another on Fox," he says.
Once the program is launched in September, cable companies will charge subscribers $1 to $2 a month over five years to cover the cost of the chips. But some experts believe that widespread implementation of the V-chip, while helpful, may also mask deeper problems with TV violence and children. Gregory Fouts, a child psychologist at the University of Calgary, says that the chip is most likely to help children whose parents are already careful about what they watch. "This will miss the most vulnerable kids," he argues, "because their parents may not be concerned enough to use the technology." Public pressure to reduce programming with undue violence or questionable values would be far more effective, he maintains. On average, Canadian kids watch about 20 hours of TV per week, and what they see ranges from cops-and-robbers shows to tawdry soap operas. "The V-chip doesn't even touch psychological aggression," adds Fouts. "I'm talking about the put-downs, name-calling and manipulation of others that is common on a lot of shows with no violence." Whatever its shortcomings, the V-chip may be very good at doing one thing: making television viewers sit down and really think about what they are watching.
Maclean's March 25, 1996