WASHINGTON -- Regulators are about to take the final step toward making available TV sets that let viewers block unwanted shows based on ratings.
The Federal Communications Commission, carrying out the wishes of Congress and the Clinton administration, is expected Thursday to adopt technical standards for equipping sets with the "v-chip" blocking technology.
A 1996 telecommunications law requires that televisions sold in the United States with screens 13 inches and larger must eventually have the blocking technology built in. Roughly 23 million sets are sold each year in the United States.
The v-chip will work with TV ratings for sex, violent and language content aired on broadcast and cable programs. New detailed ratings began Oct. 1 on ABC, CBS, Fox and major cable networks. NBC will continue using the less-specific ratings it now airs and that the rest of the industry previously used. Lawmakers are pressuring NBC to join the rest of the industry
The FCC also is expected to approve the detailed ratings system now in use. The 1996 law requires the FCC to review the system's effectiveness.
NBC officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they don't foresee anything in the FCC's upcoming actions that would prevent the network from continuing to use its rating system. The officials also said viewers would be able to use the v-chip with NBC's ratings to block shows.
TV manufacturers say sets equipped with blocking technology probably won't be in stores until summer.
The FCC is expected to give manufacturers more time than originally proposed to have all new sets equipped with v-chips, according to commission and industry sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Under that delay, manufacturers would be required to have half the sets sold in America to have blocking technology by July 1999 and all of them by one year later, industry sources said. That's a year later than the FCC proposed last year.
The manufacturers said they needed at least 18 months to retool production lines after the FCC adopted the v-chip technical standards.
"The costs of v-chip sets will be very modest, if noticeable at all," said Jonathan Thompson, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, estimating it would add $5 to $20 per set. In high-end sets -- those 27 inches and bigger -- consumers probably won't see a price change, he said.
Still, manufacturers aren't bracing for a consumer stampede for v-chip sets. "Nobody has been clamoring for them," said Thompson.
People usually buy a new television every 8 years. The industry estimates it would take four to six years for sets equipped with the v-chip to be in half of the nation's 98 million TV households. There are now 250 million sets in the United States.
Blocking technology is also expected to be put into cable set-top boxes and devices that people can buy and attach to their televisions.
Since the fall, ABC, CBS, Fox and major cable networks have been airing more detailed ratings that use the notations "V," "S," "L" and "D" to flag violence, sexual situation, coarse language and suggestive dialogue. One or more letters are added, when needed, to the "TV-PG" for parental guidance suggested, "TV-14" for programs unsuitable for children under 14 and "TV-MA" for mature audiences only.
NBC is not adding these letter notations, but is using age-based ratings including "TV-PG," "TV-14," and "TV-MA."
Both ratings systems also use "TV-G," suitable for all ages and special ratings for children's programs.