The Consumer Republic: Choice Cuts

Welcome to the next round of television versus television. On one side stand the networks, the content providers, and the advertisers, their partners in pursuit of the maximum number of eyeballs. In the opposing corner are the makers of the black boxes themselves.
Though it is rarely acknowledged, the two have been at loggerheads ever since the first remote control found its way into the hands of the sedentary TV viewer. Since then, the manufacturers of sets have dedicated themselves to the great god Choice, the rock upon which the Consumer Republic is built. Today’s programmable remotes, combined with the availability of dozens of additional channels, have turned the zapper into an exquisitely discriminating tool of individual taste.
But with the coming of the V-chip–required in 50 percent of all new sets 13 inches or larger come July 1999, and in all such televisions by January 2000–a new arena of viewer discretion, based on the suitability of programming for children, has been added to the mix. The technology that gives consumers choice also grants them the power to unchoose. The box builders are dedicated to providing their customers with both.
Broadcasters, though they can’t admit it, are “against” choice. So, too, are advertisers. However much they beat the drum of consumer individuality and choice in their commercials, they dread both in the course of business. But neither can stop the avalanche of alternatives that current and future technology provides.
Nevertheless, broadcasters were aghast to learn recently that Thomson Electronics, makers of RCA and other brands of TVs, wants to build a V-chip that not only discriminates between TV-PG and TV-M, but can also block unrated programming on demand. (Sony and Panasonic, while not yet committed to the V-chip-plus, are considering the option.) This means that by pressing a button, conscientious parents can protect their young from news, sports and advertising, which the Federal Communications Commission V-chip rules specifically exempt from the ratings system.
At the same time, the rules allow technologies that keep such unrated programming out of the home. And who are set makers to deny families optimum discretion? “The whole debate should be about what the parents want,” says Thomson spokesman Dave Arland, evoking the magical P-word that is second only to “choice” as a political sacred cow.
Because broadcasters have larded the prime-time schedule with news magazines and are burdened with entertainment lineups labeled dismal failures two months before they even debut, the manufacturer’s move is untenable. So to circumvent the V-chip-plus, the Associated Press reported last week, the nets plan to encode all news and sports TV-G. They’re working on the assumption that no one who bothers to turn on the television would block out programming below that ratings level. They don’t plan on displaying the ratings bug on such programs, however, thus sparing audiences the dissonant spectacle of the blue Gap dress sporting a “suitable for children of all ages” label. Only the V-chip-plus need know news and sports are rated at all.
Ads, in the meantime, will be invisibly encoded with the rating of the program on which they run. That leaves local news and sports vulnerable to the V-chip-plus, but that problem, too, can be addressed in time. Safe to say, all programming will be encoded with some kind of rating, visible or not, if other set manufacturers fall in with Thomson. Thus, this enhanced blocking technology already has been rendered meaningless months before it reaches its first users.
Broadcasters’ participation in the ratings system is voluntary, enforceable only by political pressure, not, thanks to the First Amendment, by law. Which means that “meaningful” ratings are voluntary. Broadcasters would not have agreed to the V-chip if news and sports had been included, and there are lots of good reasons why they shouldn’t be. But this TV vs. TV encounter does highlight the internal weakness of the V-chip effort: Those who determine the ratings are the same people who have a vested interest in making programming available to the largest potential audience. And you wonder why consumers are cynical.
Just like the upcoming network season, the V-chip might be destined for failure before it arrives in America’s living rooms. Its political appeal rests on the fantasy that the problems of a push-button society can be solved by flicking another switch.
In this skirmish of the V-chip-plus, parents (or those who claim to speak for them) wrestle with programmers for control over what gets aired in the home. But Choice, that idol of universal worship, is a jealous god. Short of throwing their televisions away, parents will never have perfect control over household viewing. And broadcasters, even if they dodge the V-chip bullet, are helpless before the next-generation of zapper in the coming age of digital TV.