Tangled Webs

   What the *bleep* Happened to the Off Switch?
Issue 11.1
May 8, 2006

We Know What's Best for You

This year we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the V-Chip. For those of you who don't remember (and no one will hold it against you if you don't) back in 1996 the US Congress enacted legislation mandating that all televisions sold in the United States contain a V-Chip. The V-Chip is special software that promised to allow parents to block out shows of a violent or sexual nature.

At the time, both Hollywood and television manufactures produced research showing that consumers were not interested in such technology, but Congress knew best, and the Telecommunications Act was passed with the predictable political posturing about how this technology (and your local congressional representative) were finally giving parents the tools they needed to "protect" their innocent children from the depraved, hedonistic influences of Hollywood.

It didn't quite work out that way.

The law made the owners of TriVision (the company that controls the V-Chip patents) wealthy beyond their most obscene fantasies of filthy lucre, but it has otherwise been a monumental failure. Research by the Ad Council determined that over the past ten years only 8% of parents have ever used the V-Chip, and it virtually no one uses it on a regular basis.

Most parents, when asked to explain their lack of interest in the V-Chip, stated they monitor their children's TV viewing habits and that they did not trust Hollywood, Congress or fundamentalist religious organizations to decide what is and is not appropriate for their children to watch.

The V-Chip program has been a complete failure. It is disliked by those it is supposed to benefit, and it has been a colossal waste of money. When confronted with these facts, Congress did the only thing it reasonably could. They declared the program a success, expanded its scope and increased funding.

From March 1, 2007 all digital televisions and all forms of set-top boxes will be required by law to have an updated version of the V-Chip. Furthermore, various religious organizations will release their own ratings of TV shows and another, more expensive, advertising campaign is set to begin. Congressmen dusted off their decade-old speeches to once again announce that they were protecting American's children.

TriVision spokesmen could not be heard over howls of drunken revelry coming from their corporate headquarters.

It's for Your Own Good

Of course, telling citizens what they can't watch on TV is only half of what responsible government is all about. The other half, of course, is telling us what we must watch. Congress is rising to the challenge.

Over the past few years wording that would actually criminalize skipping or fast-forwarding through commercials and promotional announcements on DVDs and similar media has been quietly slipped into several copyright-related bills. Skeptical readers to whom this sounds like hyperbole should take a look at the drafts of HR2391, HR4077 and S2237, to name just a few.

Despite these repeated attempts, as of this writing, such a prohibition has not become law, and Americans still have to right to skip or fast-forward through advertisements. However, since this provision keeps getting inserted into other bills, it will almost certainly become law at some point.

When questioned as to why they support such legislation, Congressional supporters cite concerns over movie piracy, the loss of American jobs, and even fighting international terrorism. They adamantly insist that their support has nothing (nothing!) to do with the hundreds of millions of dollars they receive annually from the entertainment industry.

The attempts to enact such legislation have attracted little attention primarily because most people realize that such laws would be all but impossible to enforce. That's about to change.

Last month Phillips filed a patent on technology that promises to solve the festering problem of viewer choice once and for all. Since Phillips has not officially named this technology, we'll call it the "A-Chip". When the A-Chip is incorporated into a TV, VCR or set-top box, it prevents the viewer from fast-forwarding, changing the channel, or even turning off the TV until after the commercials are over.

This technology does everything but tie you down to the chair and pry your eyelids open. While even Phillips's patent application acknowledges that this technology may be "greatly resented by viewers", one can't help but notice that requiring all TVs to have A-Chips as well as V-Chips would be the perfect way to enforce the mandatory-ad-viewing laws the entertainment industry so fervently desires.

This Hurts Me More Than it Hurts You

What I find vastly amusing, but hardly surprising, is the fact that all of the proposed legislation that would force us to watch advertisements contains the same, solitary exemption. We shall be permitted to skip commercials if, and only if, an independent rating agency has determined their content to be unsuitable for younger viewers.

That's entertainment in the Land of the Free.

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© Copyright 2006, Tim Romero, t3@t3.org
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