Twenty years ago today, the FCC what was seen as a sweeping step against violence, sex, and vulgar language in the media. On March 12, 1998, the agency announced the technical standards for manufacturing a microchip to be installed inside new television sets, known as the V-chip.
Sound and fury surrounded the V-chip during its development and arrival in the 1990s. President Clinton proclaimed its power to save TV from violence and depravity. And then we stopped hearing about it. What happened?
The idea of giving viewers censorship powers over their own televisions had been an appealing one for decades, and . The debate in the United States was inspired by a similar one in Canada, where some viewers regarded American imports like Beavis & Butthead and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers with apprehension.
The American V-chip was based on the invention of Canadian engineer Tim Collings. Then a professor of engineering at Simon Fraser University in British Colombia, Collings had developed a piece of hardware that could be inserted into a modern television and offer users a form of censorship. described his creation this way:
"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."
The V-chip itself would monitor those signals, and as such, it relied upon a third party to create a ratings system for TV. That's where one ofn a more restrictive rating, frustrating users. An L.A Times investigation into Canadian V-chip usage people complaining that the device was "basically a nuisance," and that parents were "surprised the V-chip was stricter than I would have been."
That did not stop progress. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required V-chips in every television set by the year 2000. President Clinton that "if every parent uses this chip wisely it can become a powerful voice against teen violence, teen pregnancy, teen drug use, and for both learning and entertainment." If that wasn't enough, Clinton in an interview with the L.A. Times that V-chip viewer statistics "will be more accurate than the Nielsen ratings. "
It was not to be. In 1998, the FCC presented its ratings system—the familiar TV-Y through TV-MA ratings that pop up on the screen. Those ratings may , but they never really improved or addressed the problems that were clear in the '90s. A study from 2016 the FCC's " ratings were ineffective in discriminating shows for 3 out of 4 behaviors studied. Even in shows rated for children as young as 7 years, violence was prevalent, prominent, and salient."
A bad ratings system was far from the only issue. V-chips were yet another form of new technology for people to master in a moment where computers and the internet were rapidly coming into American homes. The Annenberg Public Policy Center 110 families from 1999 to 2001 to monitor their V-chip usage. Only 33 of 110 families ever bothered to program their V-chip, and only 9 used it regularly.
The splintering of the media in recent years has only furthered the V-chip's irrelevancy. Viewers are to stream television onto their devices rather than use cable at all. That is, of course, if they're .
However, the idea that parents need some form of control over what their children watch is one that remains relevant, even if the V-chip itself is a relic. Today's battles are likely over what children are watching on YouTube.
The biggest concern are videos pronouncing themselves parodies of popular children's shows like Peppa Pig or Doc McStuffins which go on to show graphic and disturbing images to children who did not ask to be shown such content. The Outline's Laura June "false advertising in the truest sense: a confusing, vague use of adored characters used to sell to the easiest marks."
Late last year, YouTube announced that on the parody videos through age restrictions and algorithmic filters. It's also begun promoting YouTube Kids, its child-friendly app, as a safer place for children to watch their favorite shows. That promise of parental choice was at the heart and soul of the V-chip debate. Now we'll see whether an algorithm can succeed where hardware and humans failed.