Parents are gaining a new tool to keep their children from viewing televised violence, sex and profanity.
The device has been dubbed "the V-chip," and come Thursday, federal law says, half of the new televisions sold in the United States with screens 13 inches or larger must have one. All sets of that size must include them by Jan. 1.
The first sets containing V-chips began arriving in stores this spring. Yet despite the heightened concern about the portrayal of violence in the media since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, the introduction is being greeted by yawns.
Retailers say few parents shopping for televisions are looking for sets with V-chips -- or even know they exist.
Lavera Briggs, manager of the television department at a Best Buy store in Willow Grove, Pa., near Philadephia, said shoppers rarely ask for a set with a V-chip. Sometimes parents are uninterested even after she points out the newly equipped sets.
Many parents appear clueless about the television rating system that the V-chip relies on, said Amy B. Jordan, a children's-programming researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jordan said that several adults have told her that they thought the "FV" content rating stood for "family values." In fact, FV stands for "fantasy violence" and is designed to warn parents of programs that, though aimed at children age 7 and older, contain fantasy violence that is more intense than on other such shows.
A survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation last month reported that 77 percent of parents said they would use a V-chip to block shows they did not want their children to see. But the national telephone survey of 1,001 parents found that only 39 percent of them had seen or heard anything about the television rating system.
"I was a little disturbed by the continuing lack of understanding about how the rating system works," said Victoria Rideout, director of the foundation's Program on Entertainment Media and Public Health, which released the survey. "The level of parental concerns is so high about television content, and here is this new tool that has been out for about 18 months to address that."
To help dispel confusion, the Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., and other agencies and groups, including the Center of Media Education in Washington and the Federal Communications Commission, are rolling out educational campaigns to coincide with Thursday's V-chip deadline.
The campaigns are expected to include Web sites, toll-free phone numbers, and free booklets that will describe how the V-chip and the television ratings system work.
FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani, who is leading a commission task force overseeing the implementation of federal V-chip regulations, said the goal was to make sure the public was better informed before the new TV season and the fall flurry of TV purchases.
All of the major television manufacturers -- who make 90 percent of the 25 million sets sold in the United States annually -- are expected to meet this week's deadline, Tristani said. Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, said the industry group was developing a logo and stickers that retailers could use to identify V-chip-equipped sets in stores.
A new set isn't necessary to take advantage of the new filtering device, which is far more sophisticated than those that for years have allowed consumers to block entire channels. A V-chip box designed to sit atop a television is already available for about $80.
Actually, the V-chip is not a single chip at all. It is a system of integrated circuitry inside a television that can "read" a stream of data sent by a broadcaster.
The V-chip employs the same technology that closed captioning does. But instead of decoding a portion of the data stream that provides captions useful for the hearing impaired, the V-chip picks up TV ratings that are similarly encoded. The rating is transmitted about every three seconds.
Because the V-chip largely relies on existing technology, Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association officials say sets that have the feature should cost only "pennies" more than new sets that don't.
The owner of a V-chip-equipped set can program the remote control to block out shows according to ratings. For example, a parent of young children could decide to screen out all programs rated TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-M.
The adult user has an access code similar to a personal identification number used with automated teller machines. When a program comes on that the television has been set to block, a warning appears saying the viewer is not authorized to see it. Punching in the four-digit code lets parents watch such shows without reprogramming the set.