In the US a new `chip' will allow parents to censor TV. Could it work h ere?

What is a V-chip?

Short for Violence Chip, this tiny gadget sits inside a TV set and censors programmes by reading their classification code.

Nifty idea.

Yes, it was invented by Professor Tim Collings of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and costs about 60p to fit when the television is being made. The broadcasting industry in Canada is developing a voluntary classification system in conjunction with the chip with the aim of controlling violence in children's programmes such as Mighty Morph.

Is it spreading ?

A mandatory system may soon be in place in the US. President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Bill this month, which means that from 1998 all new TV sets with a screen size of 13 inches or more sold in America will have to have a V-chip. The only thing which could stop the measure now is a constitutional challenge by civil liberties groups - and this is thought unlikely.

Clinton's move is in response to a widespread view in the US that the copious sex and violence on TV are the major reason for the high levels of crime, family breakdown and the perceived decay of American society. According to campaigners for the chip, by the age of 10 the average American child has seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television.

So is the V-chip coming over here?

Perhaps. This month the European parliament voted overwhelmingly for the compulsory insertion of V-chips into every new TV set sold in Europe under the Television Without Frontiers directive.

How would it work?

According to amendments proposed by the European Parliament, every programme in Europe would be given a code which could be read by the V-chip, which censors material according to four categories: violence, sex, bad language or an age classification similar to that used for cinema films. This code would be transmitted as a signal along with each programme, and picked up by the V-chip.

Every category could have a rating of one to five, with five the most liberal and one the most restrictive. Parents could instruct the V-chip inside their television to refuse all programmes with a violence level above, say, two, or a sex level above, say, five. When a programme exceeding that level was transmitted, a warning would appear on the TV screen obliterating the picture and switching channels.

What is the drawback?

Civil liberties groups fear it could be sued to censor other programmes. Article 19, the international anti-censorship body, worries that such a measure in Europe would allow countries with repressive regimes to censor any TV programme on satellite which comes over their borders.

But there isn't much protection against kids watching violence, is there?

Not a huge amount. The Independent Television Commission relies on the 9pm watershed, which came into being in about 1960. Nothing unsuitable for children should be shown before 9pm, although throughout the evening programmes gradually become more "suitable" for adults. Film and videos are more closely regulated by being coded according to age by the British Board of Film Classification - this started in 1912, although videos have only been classified since 1984.

Broadcast warnings of adult material, possibly in the form of symbols in listings pages, are favoured by 94 per cent of people, according to research published in December by the Broadcasting Standards Council. Of those, 77 per cent thought rape scenes and "distressing scenes about children" might require a warning, violence was cited by 74 per cent, "extreme sex" by 71 per cent and bad language by 65 per cent. The BBC's new 10-year charter, to start in April, also has a new "taste and decency" clause, which legally obliges the BBC's board of governors to act as watchdogs on bad language, gratuitous violence or explicit sex.

And what do the broadcasters think?

They have reacted surprisingly tamely. The official line of the BBC, which lobbied strongly against the new taste and decency clause, is that it is "watching events with interest". Granada is more strongly against the notion: a V-chip would play havoc the audience guarantees it gives to advertisers. The ITV Association also points out the numerous difficulties it could cause, not least to the BBC. "What's to say someone couldn't V-chip out every programme put out by the BBC and then argue they shouldn't have to pay the licence fee?" asks Ross Biggam, an ITVA European Affairs executive.

There are technical difficulties, too?

If the European Parliament makes it law, the idea is that a European- wide body would set the European standard for each tolerance level. The problem is that the 15 member states are highly unlikely to agree on what constitutes a dangerous level of sex or violence. What might offend an Irish housewife is unlikely to shock a Danish student.

Even if the standards could be set on a national rather than a European basis, who would do it? Would it be for the regulators, the government, the broadcasters, or a quango? How would they agree? It's fraught with difficulty.

And there are all sorts of other problems?

Yes, one is that, if the V-chip becomes mandatory, its effects will not be felt for years - the average life-cycle of a television set is some two decades, so it would be a slow business making the V-chip widely accessible.Mr Biggam of the ITVA points out it would be unfair on homes without children. They would have to fork out - admittedly perhaps not that much - for more expensive TV sets. "It's similar to making everyone fit a child's seat belt: a good idea if you have a young child, but fairly pointless for everyone else," Mr Biggam says.

The point is, will it save the moral health of our kids?

Well, possibly, possibly not. Research shows that when parents buy new TV sets they tend to sling their old ones into their children's bedrooms. In other words, all the V-chipped sets will be in the sitting room and the uncensored ones will be exactly where they shouldn't be.

Kids are also highly computer-literate. Even if you censor television watching, the real bogey has arguably become the Internet, which proffers mind-boggling levels of porn for anyone who cares to browse its "newsgroups" or the World Wide Web.

It is also worth remembering that a comprehensive study published in August by Sheffield University (on behalf of the ITC and BBC) found that violence accounted for just one per cent of airtime on terrestrial and satellite television in Britain, and that incidents of violence on the four terrestrial channels had nearly halved since 1986.

Research also shows that people are often most upset by the violence shown on the news, because they are less able to stand back from it. If this is censored by parents too, what implications would that have for TV's important role in educating children about international affairs?

Sounds like any move to introduce it here would provoke a lot of controversy?

Yes. But it is unlikely to come to this country in the near future as a result of the European initiative, which is likely to get lost in lots of horse trading. It has come about in the US because of the power of the American moral right. Unlike many European countries, America's televisual output is almost entirely unregulated. So the argument for a V-chip is stronger. It is undoubtedly going to happen over there: the four big TV networks - ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox - are finalising a common system of classification for their programmes and are due to present it to Clinton at a "TV summit" on Thursday.

Sources for graphic information: Business Development Partnership 1995, Broadcasting Standards Council 1995. Research: Ben Summers. Graphic: Mark Hayman

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