Battle Over TV Program Blocking

Broadcasters and TV manufacturers are battling over whether technology to be installed in new television sets should let people block news, sports and commercials, programming which is exempt from the industry's voluntary ratings.

Under current ratings blessed by federal regulators and hailed by key lawmakers in Congress, shows are flagged for sex, violence and crude or suggestive language. News and sports, however, are not covered.

Blocking technology, dubbed the v-chip, as envisioned by the Federal Communications Commission in technical standards adopted in March, would let viewers block shows based on their ratings. But the FCC did not specifically bar TV set makers from making the v-chip even more powerful; letting people zap unrated shows.

Now some of those manufacturers, including RCA and Panasonic, want to build v-chips into sets that would enable viewers to block news and sports shows. Viewers would also be able to block programming that carries no rating, such as advertisements and some TV programs, say broadcasters and manufacturers involved in the dispute who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This has broadcasters furious. The dispute threatens the smooth introduction, slated for next year, of TV sets containing the v-chip.

Broadcasters argue that what some manufacturers want to do would undermine the concept of a voluntary ratings system. In addition, they worry the technology would let people block local commercials, local weather warnings and other information.

Manufacturers that want their TV sets to be able to block both rated and unrated TV shows believe consumers want that power, said a consumer electronics industry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Discussions between broadcasters and TV set makers to resolve the dispute are ongoing, both sides say. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who got the ratings and v-chip provisions into a 1996 telecommunications law, is keeping an eye on the situation, but aides doubt Congress would intervene.

Consumer electronics officials contend that broadcasters, in meetings with lawmakers and regulators, are threatening to boycott the v-chip by not electronically coding their shows with ratings information. This information carried in the TV signal is not seen by viewers but is necessary for the v-chip to recognize a show's rating.

But broadcasters, while not ruling it out, said they have not yet resorted to taking such action.

One option for broadcasters is to rate news and sports shows "TV-G," suitable for all ages, or a "TV-Y," appropriate for all children. The rationale is that most parents wouldn't program their v-chip equipped TV sets to block shows that carry these ratings.

Written by Jeannine Aversa