Short for "violence chip", it can be fitted inside television sets to pick up signals built into every programme. If the code shows a level of sex or violence over a pre-set maximum, the set switches channels. Pressure is growing for censorship after President Clinton agreed last month to installation of V-chips in all new sets sold in the US.
Last month the European Parliament followed his lead by voting for V- chips to be installed in all new sets sold in Europe, although this measure may not reach the statute book.
But the concern to maintain broadcasting standards is close to the heart of Virginia Bottomley, the Heritage Secretary, who yesterday acknowledged fears about the effect of television violence on children.
"It may be that the V-chip offers help and we are looking to see if it will work in practice," she said. "If a V-chip helps parents exercise their responsibility, then all to the good."
The Heritage Department has had talks on the subject with regulators, and will also consult broadcasters, viewers and advertisers. However, the danger of a unilateral measure is that it could fall foul of European single-market restrictions. It would also be difficult, because foreign programmes available on cable or satellite would not contain a V-chip signal.
Another problem would be that such a measure could prevent the sale of many foreign-manufactured television sets.
Given the 15-20-year life span of television sets, it would also be a long time before it took effect.
Nevertheless, David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill, has threatened to put down an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill to make V-chips compulsory if Mrs Bottomley does not legislate.
The introduction of the V-chip has received guarded support from much of the industry, except for advertisers, and the debate on the issue is welcomed by Labour.
Lady Howe, chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, said: "If it can be done and the cost is not prohibitive, then it is a good idea, but it won't solve all problems." But James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification said: "Remember that it's only new sets that will have this chip in and the old sets tend to go into kids' bedrooms. I fear the children most in need of protection are the ones least likely to get it."Reuse content