What is a V-chip? This term has become a buzz word for any discussion evolving telecommunications regulation and television ratings, but not too many reports define the new technology in its fullest form. A basic definition of the V-chip; is a microprocessor that can decipher information sent in the vertical blanking of the NTSC signal, purposefully for the control of violent or controversial subject matter.
Yet, the span of the new chip is much greater than any working definition can encompass. A discussion of the V-chip must include a consideration of the technical and ethical issues, in addition to examining the constitutionally of any law that might concern standards set by the US government. Yet in the space provided for this essay, the focus will be the technical aspects and costs of the new chip. It is impossible to generally assume that the V-chip will solve the violence problem of broadcast television or that adding this little device to every set will be a first amendment infringement.
We can, however, find clues through examining the cold facts of broadcast television and the impact of a mandatory regulation on that free broadcast. “Utilizing the EIA’s Recommended Practice for Line 21 Data Service(EIA-608) specification, these chips decode EDS (Extended Data Services)program ratings, compare these ratings to viewer standards, and can be programmed to take a variety of actions, including complete blanking of programs.” Is one definition of the V-chip from Al Marquis of Zilog Technology. The FCC or Capitol Hill has not set any standards for V-chip technology; this has allowed many different companies to construct chips that are similar yet not exact or possibly not compatible. Each chip has advantages and disadvantages for the rating’s system, soon to be developed. For example, some units use onscreen programming such as VCR’s and the Zilog product do, while others are considering set top options. Also, different companies are using different methods of parental control over the chip.
Another problem that these new devices may incur when included in every television is a space. The NTSC signal includes extra information space known as the subcarrier and Vertical blanking interval. As explained in the quotation from Mr. Marquis, the V-chips will use a certain section of this space to send simple rating numbers and points that will be compared to the personality settings in the chip. Many new technologies are being developed for smart-TV or data broadcast on this part of the NTSC signal. Basically the V-chip will severely limit the bandwidth for high performance transmission of data on the NTSC signal.There is also to be cost to this new technology, which will be passed to consumers.
Estimates are that each chip will cost six dollars wholesale and must be designed into the television’s logic. The V-chip could easily push the price of televisions up by twenty five or more dollars during the first years of production. The much simpler solution of set top boxes allows control for those who need it and allow those consumers who don’t to save money and use new data technology. Another cost will most definitely be levied to television advertisers for the upgrade of the transmitting equipment. Weather the V-chip encoding signal is added upstream of the transmitter or directly into uplink units and other equipment intended for broadcast; this cost will have to compensated for in advertising sales and prices. The V-chip regulation may also require another staff employee at most stations to effectively rate locally aired programs and events. All three of these questions have been addressed in minute detail. Most debate has focused upon the new rating system and its implementation.
Though equally important, this doesn’t deal with the ground floor concerns for the television producing and broadcasting industries. Now as members of the industry we must hold our breath until either the fed knocks the wind from free broadcast with mandatory ratings’ devices, or allows the natural regulation to continue.