V-Chip Remains an Enigma


The FCC blasted the V-chip/TV-ratings system last week, declaring in a court brief defending its profanity crackdown that "most of the televisions currently in use have no V-chip capability at all."

Really? As of 2000, all TV sets sold in the country are required to be V-chip–capable. Figuring that consumers buy new sets every eight years or so, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that there are
180 million V-chip–enabled TVs in the U.S., or 60%-65% of the universe of 300 million TVs—a majority where we come from.

The commission cited various statements, studies and hearings from 2003 and 2004 in a footnote in the brief, but it was still trying to pin down the exact source of its assertion at press time.

CEA, for its part, bases its figures on a market-analysis database that tracks TV shipments from manufacturers to retailers. Any discrepancy between units shipped and sold is statistically insignificant, says a CEA spokesman, noting that its figure represents the number "installed"—as in up and humming in the home.

But the FCC may be onto something. There really is no V-chip, per se, according to CEA and at least one First Amendment attorney with a dog in this profanity fight.

The so-called V-chip is the same bit of circuitry that governs closed-captioning and other data—such as ratings codes—delivered via the broadcast signal’s vertical blanking interval, says CEA Director of Engineering David Wilson.

So where did the notion of a separate chip come from? Says Wilson, "It was something easy to throw around Capitol Hill."