The passage of a federal telecommunications bill mandating a v-chip in every new TV set presents the broadcast networks with a serious challenge to their public image.
Television executives believe the measure violates their companies' free-speech rights and are considering challenging it in court. But they fear they could win the legal battle and lose the public-opinion war if they are seen as trying to stymie parents who want to protect their children from programs laden with sex and violence.
"Public sentiment is running so high on this issue," said one broadcast executive, who requested anonymity, "that we need to do something to address parents' concerns about what their kids see on television. The question is, 'What should we do?' "
President Clinton, who has endorsed the v-chip technology and is expected to sign the telecommunications bill Congress passed last week, will be racheting up the pressure on the networks later this month. He has invited key TV executives to a Feb. 29 meeting at the White House to discuss the v-chip, the creation of a ratings system and kids' programming.
According to the telecommunications legislation passed last week, every new TV set manufactured in the United States must be equipped with a v-chip -- an electronic device that can be set to block out entertainment programming that a viewer might deem objectionable (the "v" stands for violence). The chip would be activated by a rating electronically encoded in the TV signal.
Supporters say this would make it far easier for parents to prevent their children from seeing inappropriate programming. TV suppliers would still be free to produce and transmit anything they chose; they would simply have to label it, as the movie industry does with its ratings, so viewers could set their TVs to receive or reject it.
It is the development of the rating system that is now at issue. The legislation gives the TV industry a year to come up with one voluntarily; if it doesn't, the Federal Communications Commission will empanel a group to do it for them.
While some studies have found that cable television is more violent than the broadcast networks because of the uncut theatrical films shown on many of its channels, the cable industry has backed the v-chip and said that it would support a voluntary ratings system for television.
"Broadcasters could find themselves isolated from the cable industry on the ratings issue," said one industry observer. "Cable might come up with a ratings system on its own because they find that's a selling point to consumers."
What are the alternatives for broadcasters?
Executives said they may expand their use of parental advisories -- on-air cautions that a program might not be suitable for some viewers.