The V-Chip in Canada and the United States: Themes and Variations in Design and Deployment
McDowell, Stephen D., Maitland, Carleen, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media
In the mid-1990s, both Canada and the United States introduced policy instruments to address concerns about the effects of violent television programs on children. The policy instruments of each country focus on labeling television program content. These measures supplemented long-standing legal and self-regulatory mechanisms that controlled the content of audiovisual communication, either through promises of performance to obtain broadcast licenses, or the use of ratings for films or sound recordings.
This research considers the design and introduction of V-Chip technologies in Canada and the U.S. These technologies block programming that exceeds the viewers' chosen threshold levels of sexual content, coarse or suggestive language, or violence. These levels are indicated by program rating information provided by broadcasters and distributed along with the program signal. Although the timing and thrust of the policies pursued in Canada and the U. S. are quite similar, the specific ways in which V-Chip technologies are being deployed in each country vary significantly. In Canada, where the decision-making process was driven by regulators, the system hardware is placed in the cable decoder box. This system serves to augment existing industry self-regulation of broadcast standards. In contrast, the U.S. system -- in which the decision-making process was the result of legislation -- the system hardware is placed in the television set itself. Instead of augmenting already existing regulations, the U.S. system was introduced as a new mechanism to deal with public concerns over television content.
How can the differences between Canada and the U. S. in policies for a V-Chip technology be best understood and explained? This paper examines the processes which led to these decisions and offers an explanation that draws from institutional and political economy analysis. It argues these technology choices represent important initiatives by advocacy organizations, and by specific legislators in the U. S. and regulatory officials in Canada. However, the shape of V-Chip technology choices also reflects the constraints which policy makers face.
Debates concerning the appropriateness of the V-Chip hardware and content ratings often focus on issues such as constitutional guarantees of speech rights and freedoms. This investigation goes beyond these issues and includes the industry and technical context in each country, and the organizational and institutional aspects of legislative and regulatory processes. These conditions and processes shaped the ways in which laws, regulations, and technologies were implemented.
Elements and Commonalities in the V-Chip Mandates
In March of 1996 the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) concluded an investigation aimed at identifying ways to deal with television violence. The CRTC issued a decision setting a deadline of September 1996 for the introduction of a fully operating V-Chip system (See CRTC, 1996a; Winsor, 1996). In Canada, the V-Chip package of technologies, policies, services, and industry responsibilities, includes the following:
1. Broadcasters would set up a standard program rating scheme working through the Action Group on Violence on Television. These age-based ratings were proposed in April 1997 (Action Group on Violence on Television, 1997), and were reviewed and approved by the CRTC in June 1997 (CRTC, 1997b). 2. Broadcasters would, by September 1996, encode programs they distribute with a signal to activate the V-Chip technology. This timetable was put off until fall of 1997 after industry requests for more time. Program advisories were broadcast in Fall 1997, even though the V-Chip technology was not finalized (See CRTC, 1996b, CRTC 1997b). 3. Program distributors, most importantly the cable companies, would be required to make V-Chip technology available to subscribers who wanted it as part of their cable signal de-scrambler box and at a "low monthly" cost. …