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April 4, 2000


Today, I'm sending letters to all the major broadcast networks, asking them to recommit themselves to educating parents about the V-Chip.

This is a crucial time for the V-Chip. After years of being talked about as if it were real, the V-Chip has become a reality.

We were reminded of the importance of this issue by the recent tragedy in Flint, Michigan, where the six year-old boy shot his classmate. The prosecutor, in discussing how the boy was incapable of forming a criminal intent, was quoted in the Washington Post: "Especially after the detectives say that he has not appreciated what has happened, that he takes this as, well, this is something that happens like on television."

As head of the FCC's V-Chip Task Force, I have been working on three goals. One, make sure the chips were installed in TV sets on schedule. Two, make sure that programmers were actually transmitting the ratings so that the V-Chip has something to read. And three, let parents know that the V-Chip has arrived and how they can use it in their everyday lives.

The first two goals have largely been accomplished. The TV ratings system has been established and found acceptable. Virtually all major TV programming distributors are now encoding and transmitting the ratings information. And as of last January 1, V-Chips are now standard equipment in all television sets 13" or larger.

But merely having the physical system in place is not enough. The challenge now is goal number three -- educating parents. Too many parents still do not know that the V-Chip exists and what it can do. In a new survey being released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 39% of U.S. parents still have never even heard of the V-Chip. This must change.

In 1997, when the television industry submitted its modified ratings system to the Commission for approval, it pledged to work to "educate the public and parents about the V-Chip and the TV Parental Guideline System." With the release of these letters, I am asking the major networks to live up to that commitment.

Why the networks? First, I'm not singling them out. Over the past year, we've been working with many groups on this public education effort, including manufacturers, retailers, industry trade associations and the public interest community. In the coming weeks I may be making other public calls for action. Last week, I went shopping for TV sets at several local electronics stores and asked about the V-Chip. Based on my experience, there's much more work that needs to be done at the retail level.

But it's appropriate to start with the networks. As Robert Wright, the CEO of NBC said in a recent speech at the National Press Club, "network television remains the only mass medium that can bring tens of millions - even hundreds of millions - of viewers together. Only the NBCs, ABCs, and CBSs of the world can provide a shared experience that affects and influences our collective identity as a nation."

It's like when they asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks and he said, "because that's where the money is." I'm starting with the networks because that's where the eyeballs are.

The major networks have taken an important first step. They all have produced public service announcements that could help educate parents about the V-Chip. Now the question is whether those PSAs are being aired often enough to have a meaningful impact.

We have received tracking data on the airing of network PSAs since January 2000, when the V-Chip became standard equipment in all new sets. The most important numbers are the times the PSAs have run at the network level, as opposed to the station level. If the PSA is carried at the network level, it's being shown on every network affiliate nationwide. On the other hand, if it's shown at the station level, the message reaches only those parents in that station's viewing area.

The numbers are mixed. CBS is the only network to make a real effort to run V-Chip PSAs at the network level. Of the 59 total PSAs shown at the network level since January, 54 of the 59 (or 92%) were on CBS. In fact, CBS's numbers are likely even higher, because there is no tracking data on a short 10-second PSA that CBS also produced on the V-Chip.

The other networks are lagging far behind CBS. Since January, ABC aired only one PSA at the network level, and Fox and NBC aired only two apiece.

I'd like to commend CBS for its commitment to airing its PSAs at the network level, and encourage them to do even more in the future. The numbers from ABC, Fox and NBC are disappointing. If the goal is to educate parents, one or two airings at the network level over a three-month period is plainly insufficient.

Although showings at the network level have far more reach, I note that many network affiliates have been running V-Chip PSAs at the station level - whether it's the network PSAs or the PSAs produced by NAB and NCTA. Nationwide, there were about 2,600 V-Chip PSAs aired at the station level since January. Since there are over 1,200 full-power commercial broadcasters in the country, 2,600 showings amounts to less than one showing per station per month. Again, while I appreciate any airings anywhere in the country, station-level showings do not have the impact of network showings.

I hope all of the networks will recommit themselves to this effort. I know some in Washington think the V-Chip is "old news." And for those of us who have been working on the V-Chip, we've certainly been talking about these issues for a long time. But the average parent does not follow the debates here in Washington. Again, 39% of them have never even heard of the V-Chip. To them, the V-Chip is brand new. These are the people we need to reach. And we need to do it now.