Imagine sitting in front of a TV set that automatically blocks out commercials.
A fantasy? Maybe not. The option could soon be available in the United States.
Ever since politicians began to hype the V-chip, it has been heralded as a way for parents to protect kids from violence and sex on the tube. But the V-chip could turn out to have some unintended consequences.
Two major TV manufacturers-producing such brands as Panasonic, RCA and General Electric-are going ahead with plans to make television sets with V-chips that enable viewers to block unrated programming, a category that includes news, sports and commercials.
The owners of TV stations and networks seem worried, to put it mildly. The National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable Television Association are adamant: They want those TV sets kept off the market.
But TV makers point out that consumer choice should not be restricted. And they cite an unambiguous FCC ruling: "We will not prohibit features that allow the user ... to block programs that are not rated."
By next summer, stores across America will be offering large quantities of V-chipped televisions, designed for easy operation. Then, if you click the "unrated program blocking" option, many commercials could simply disappear from sight.
What if you've blocked unrated programs but feel like watching news or sports? No problem. Within a minute or so, viewers will be able to clear the way for unrated shows by pushing a few buttons.
This all sounds too good to be true. And it might be. TV ad revenues amount to billions of dollars each season-and media conglomerates will certainly go all out to defend the sanctity of commercials. The V-chip may lose its commercial-zapping powers before they begin.
Television networks are determined to prevent V-chips from being used to foil the real purpose of broadcasting in the first place-to grab a large audience and foist commercials on it. The pressure will be intense on the FCC and Congress to- one way or another-block viewers from blocking commercials. On Capitol Hill, would-be commercial zappers may be out of luck. After all, the bipartisan phalanx of moralizing politicians behind the V-chip didn't have commercials in mind when they condemned some TV programming as unfit for youngsters.
To do an end run around the V-chip's anti-commercial potential, networks may try to give (benign) ratings to TV advertising. But a lot of commercials would deserve to be rated as truly obscene, one way or another.
TV networks already claim that commercials airing within a program's time slot warrant the same rating code as the program itself. Even so, many commercials air between shows, and those ads may be the easiest to keep off our TV screens.
The V-chip commercial-blocking scenario is on the horizon at an especially fitting time. This summer has brought the one- second TV commercial. It premiered nationally with flick-of-an- eye spots for Master Lock on the FX cable network and ESPN.
Here in the United States, the news media have yet to sound an alarm. But in London, the Evening Standard put it bluntly: "TV advertisements that last just one second are the latest corporate assault on consumers in America."
The British newspaper reported: "Advertising experts believe the one-second commercials will be good news for products like Pepsi and Coke, that already have strong consumer images." Just what we need -- more subliminal brainwashing.
If it were easy to filter out TV commercials, many people would be glad to take advantage of the appropriate technology. The television industry's timeworn line-"we're just giving the public what it wants"-is refuted by the fact that most viewers "don't" want commercials but get plenty of them anyway.
Is there a possibility of stuffing the commercial genie back into the broadcast bottle? We'll find out. In the long run, grass-roots pressure and activism -- not technological gizmos-are our best hope.
It would be wonderfully ironic if the brainchild of pandering politicians and reluctant network executives, the V- chip, could serve as a catalyst for a belated public debate about incessant commercials on the airwaves.
Norman Solomon is co-author of "Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News" and author of "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."