DAN TURNER Staff Reporter
Consumers probably won’t be able to buy a television set equipped with one of those notorious “V-chips” until next year, but two Southern California companies are preparing to roll out devices that make existing TV sets more parent-friendly.
Leading the way is Pasadena-based Acacia Research Corp., which wants to take advantage of the expected gap between the approval of a television ratings system by the Federal Communications Commission and the time when a majority of U.S. consumers own V-chip-equipped TVs.
The V-Chip Converter, first introduced last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is a set-top box that will be able to block out shows with restrictive ratings. Although other companies are believed to be working on similar devices, Acacia is the first to announce an available product.
V-chips were mandated as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. They aren’t really chips at all, but software packages that will be programmed into future TV sets.
Broadcasters soon will begin transmitting a signal along with their programming that tells the V-chip what rating a given show is imprinted with. But before the devices can work, a ratings system must be approved.
In December, the Motion Picture Association of America proposed a rating system that assigns six different categories to TV offerings. The system is based on the MPAA’s ratings for motion pictures; ratings range from “TV-G” for all audiences to “TV-M,” which is recommended for adults only.
The system developed by the television industry has attracted criticism from conservative and religious organizations, which seek a more comprehensive method of assessing the amount of violence and sexual content in TV shows.
The FCC is likely to approve the industry’s ratings system before the end of this month, and broadcasters are prepared to begin transmitting ratings signals immediately following the approval.
For most people, the signals will be meaningless. TV set manufacturers have stated that sets equipped with V-chips will not be available until the 1998 model year.
Further, the Electronic Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group for electronics manufacturers, estimates that it will take at least 11 years before a majority of U.S. TV households have sets equipped with V-chips.
To bridge the gap, Acacia, whose stock is traded on the Nasdaq, has developed a device at its Greenwich, Conn.-based subsidiary Soundview Technologies Inc. that does everything a V-chip does, only it attaches to a normal TV set.
Acacia President and CEO Paul Ryan said it will retail for less than $50, which he said should attract consumers who don’t want to pay the price of replacing their TVs next year.
Ryan said his company’s V-Chip Converter will be more commercially viable than devices that merely block certain channels or certain times, because they require little parental input the parent simply tells the device what ratings should be blocked, and it does the rest.
“The key issue is that it’s automatic,” Ryan said. “It’s the convenience factor.”
But Jack Thompson, president of Cintel Engineering Inc. in the Riverside County town of La Quinta, believes there will be only a small market for devices like Acacia’s.
Which is why Cintel has developed a product that gives parents a different kind of control. Its SuperVision, which retails for $139, is another box that attaches to ordinary TV sets, only this one controls the amount of time a child can spend watching the tube.
Using SuperVision, parents can program the amount of time per day or week the TV will operate the device shuts the set off after the time limit is reached. It can also be programmed to allow TV viewing only at certain dates or times. Another Cintel product, VisionLock, makes the TV completely inaccessible unless the user has a key.
“All the child psychologists are saying that the main idea is to keep kids away from the TV and make them do something else,” Thompson said. “If you do that, the violence and sex on TV take care of themselves.”
Cintel’s recently developed parental control products are currently sold only through the company’s site on the World Wide Web, but Thompson said he is negotiating with major electronics retail chains for future distribution.