Easy-to-use V-chip bars smut from kid viewers

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December 22, 2005|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

If you watch cable TV, during the next few months, you'll get a notice from your cable company offering a new, "family-friendly" package of channels at a fixed price. By that, the industry means channels that deliver less sex, violence and foul language than today's standard channel bundles.

There's nothing wrong with this - in fact, it's a great idea. The problem: Most parents don't really need it. And they ought to think twice before they subscribe to whatever new Pablum Network the cable companies create.

Thanks to a ubiquitous, but little-used feature in most TVs called the V-chip, parents can already block most of the stuff that's really bad for the kids. When they want to watch TV after the progeny are in bed, they can turn off the filter and tune in Passion Cove. Progress with an escape hatch.

But I don't mean to be flippant - this is a serious issue. Although I'm a rabid defender of the First Amendment, my wife and I were always queasy about a lot of the things our boys watched growing up - even on network TV, in prime time, before 10 p.m. I think we screened out the worst stuff, but if we'd had the content filters that parents of young children have today, we might have made different choices.

So I sympathize with the religious, family-oriented interest groups who scared the bleep out of the cable industry this fall. Looking at the bundles of channels the cable companies offered - and finding all laced with content they find offensive - they demanded the right to buy only the channels they like, one at a time.

This a la carte system - so familiar in restaurants - makes sense to parents who don't want to spend every minute monitoring their kids' viewing. If I don't want my 8-year-old watching programs that glorify sex, violence and testosterone-fueled stupidity, why should I pay for the Spike channel? If I don't want my kids watching raunchy comedians, why pay for Comedy Central?

These are part of most "standard" cable packages - and therein lies the reason that a panicked cable industry promised the FCC last week that it would come up with family-friendly cable bundles early in 2006. (Which means it could have actually done so long ago.)

A la carte cable upsets the very business model that has made cable so very profitable for so long. But it also worries conservative religious broadcasters, who would otherwise be natural allies of the agitating parent groups.

Religious channels currently get tossed into cable bundles with Spike, MTV, Comedy Central and various other dens of on-air iniquity. Without bundling, the preachers figured, no one would pay to see them - and that would cripple their fundraising.

Just realize that if you have a cable box, or get over-the-air signals on a TV that's less than six years old, you can fend off most programming you find offensive right now. You just have to spend some time figuring out what you don't want your kids to watch.

Since 1999, all new U.S. TV sets over 13 inches have been equipped with a circuit called the V-chip, which allows parents to choose the amount of sex and violence they're willing to tolerate without express approval.

This circuit interprets a rating system set up by representatives of the television industry, parents, cable operators and other interest groups. It's a lot like the five-tier system that the Motion Picture Association of America uses to rate movies (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17). In fact, the V-chip uses those ratings to control the display of Hollywood movies.

Unfortunately, for television content, the TV board decided movie ratings were far too easy to understand. So it started with a basic scale of six steps, ranging from TV-Y for all children to TV-MA for mature audiences only.

On top of that, it flags the more mature ratings with up to five different letter codes that designate specific levels of possibly objectionable material. They include real violence (V), fantasy violence (FV), foul language (L), suggestive dialogue (D) or sexual activity (S).

The rating appears on the screen during the first 15 seconds of any program. But more importantly, broadcasters encode the rating in the so-called "blanking interval," a portion of the signal that doesn't normally show up on the screen. Closed captions are stored there, too.

Every new TV with a setup menu allows parents to pick a numeric password using the remote control and block shows with particular ratings. If you don't know how to do it, look in your owner's manual under Parental Control or V-Chip.

I tried it on two TVs in our house and had no problem, although the implementation of the menu on our new Toshiba HD set is more awkward than it should be. But it wasn't hard to turn off the V-chip with the password - which means that mom and dad can watch whatever they want once the kids are in bed.

Your TV may also have specific station lockouts - and it's more than likely that your cable box does. That means you can block certain stations altogether, without memorizing a content system.

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