Tim Collings is one of those techies who uses the word "neat" as often as some Canadians use "eh." A soft-spoken engineering instructor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., the 34-year-old Collings clearly gets excited by gadgetry. But he is also a parent, troubled by what one piece of technology - television - was doing to his kids. About five years ago, as public concern mounted, Collings began to read up on the effects of TV violence. "I came to the conclusion that it does influence behavior," he says, "and I thought the fact that most people have that perception, too, was reason enough to do something about it." Putting on two hats - engineer and parent - Collings invented the V-chip, a device that just might transform the TV landscape.
By allowing parents to block out programs based on predetermined ratings for violence, sex and language, the V-chip ("v" is for violence) promises to give unprecedented control over what children see on television. And its launch - scheduled for September in Canada through cable companies, which will offer it for about $2 a month - has been preceded by some pretty lofty pronouncements. "It will revolutionize the way people watch television," says Alison Clayton, a communications consultant who has spearheaded V-chip development for Rogers Communications Inc. U.S. President Bill Clinton was even more bullish in February, when he signed into law a telecommunications bill requiring all new TV sets to be equipped with the device. The V-chip, Clinton declared, "can become a powerful voice against teen violence, teen pregnancy, teen drug use, and for both learning and entertainment."
Those are large claims, especially for a relatively simple gadget. Collings's system is based on encoding programs with an electronic signal. Like closed-captioning, the signal is inserted on the so-called vertical blanking interval - the black space between each frame of video - and it carries ratings information. In the home, the V-chip decodes the signal and, with a remote control and on-screen display, allows parents to customize their viewing. In the latest field trial, which ended in mid-May, two levels of ratings were used. First, programs were rated from E (for "exempt" newscasts and sports shows) and G (for general audience) to R (for restricted). But shows were also given a numerical rating for violence, sex and language - a 0 for the tamest fare, a 5 for graphic violence, foul language or explicit sexuality.
For Keith Spicer, who will leave his post as chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission at the end of June, the V-chip represents the culmination of a four-year campaign against television violence. Spicer is careful not to claim too much for the V-chip - he is fond of saying that it is only 10 per cent of the solution. But he adds: "I do predict that we will have better television. As a result of the V-chip, certain types of programs will not be made any more - the stupidly violent stuff that's a substitute for creativity."
Still, not everyone is happy. Peter Grant, a consultant with the Directors Guild of Canada, says that TV producers have "grave concerns" about the chip's application. A high V-chip rating, Grant says, could put pressure on advertisers not to support controversial TV shows. Adding to the concern is the situation in the United States, where Clinton has directed the TV industry to develop a ratings system. There is no guarantee that the U.S. system and the Canadian one - currently being formulated by an anti-violence alliance of broadcasters and cable companies - will be the same. And Collings, for one, worries that U.S. broadcasters will settle on a simple "adult/not-adult" classification system. "That would mean just trying to determine the appropriate age group," Collings says, "rather than giving content information and letting parents decide."
That power of decision is what Wally Hill, a 36-year-old Ottawa communications consultant whose family participated in the latest V-chip trial, likes about Collings's invention. "It gives you some level of control," Hill says, "over what other people are putting into your living-room." But there were a few glitches. When the V-chip was installed in their TV set in mid-February, Wally and his wife, Heather, set the device to PG - the right level to keep their children, Mackenzie, 10, Alexander, 9, and 14-month-old Sarah, from watching inappropriate programs. Trouble was, their favorite show, The Simpsons, had been rated A - suitable for ages 16 and up. The V-chip blocked the show. "Immediately," Hill says, "we had our 10-year-old going, 'Whoa! Come on!' " Resetting the chip solved that problem, and it worked fine after that. Except for one thing. "Miracle on 34th Street," Hill recalls, "was rated R."
Maclean's June 17, 1996