July 4, 1996 * Vol . 6, No. 5

Interview:Tim Collings

Inventor calls V-chip a technological protection for the "unguarded soul"

by Bruce Mason

The V-chip has sparked international debate and is now part of the global household vocabulary. The thumb-nail sized device, which enables viewers to screen incoming TV programs for violence, sex and profanity, is the brainchild of SFU's Tim Collings. Since developing the device, he has appeared on the Phil Donahue Show, been quoted in Time magazine, The Economist and Wall Street Journal, and appeared on the CBS, CNN and ABC networks and Britain's BBC. Bruce Mason of Simon Fraser News recently caught up with the busy Collings, who is a lab instructor in the school of engineering science.

Right off the top - what does the 'V' in V-chip really stand for?

Well, some say the 'V' stands for 'violence,' others say 'vulgarity'. I intended it to stand for 'viewer control,' but it also stands for 'Vancouver' and I hope it comes to stand for 'values.'

Like every other "overnight success story" this has a history. Can you recall when you began to conceive this idea?

On December 5, 1989 I was sitting in my office listening to the CBC news bulletin on the massacre of 14 female engineering students at Ècole Polytechnique in Montreal. I think a lot of us here in the school of engineering science were deeply affected by this incident.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, there were a number of reports that referred to the background of the killer and his steady diet of violent videos, in particular. There were also many references to studies on how television affects us and I read these out of general interest. I came to the conclusion that television violence contributes to real-world violent behavior, as well as other causes of concern, such as increased fear and desensitization.

I wondered what could be done. Should or could violence be reduced, restricted, or labelled, and, if so, by whom?

I finally decided that the best way to work towards a solution would be to develop a classification system and technology that could be used by broadcasters to warn viewers about potentially objectionable content, and could be used by parents to control the type of programs coming into their homes.

By the time Canadians reach high school they have watched 10 thousand hours of TV, more time than spent in school. By age 18 North Americans have seen 500,000 commercials. What effect do you think that has?

In the U.S., a child is arrested for a violent crime every five minutes. Gun related violence takes the life of an American child every three hours ... the list of facts is endless and alarming. I recognize the complexity in determining the causes of violent behavior, but the mass media bear some responsibility for contributing to real world violence.

It is not every act that raises concern, nor every child or adult who is affected. However, I believe the effects of this type of exposure are cumulative and pervasive. For many, media violence leads to emotional desensitization toward real world violence and victims of violence.

For some, viewing violence will increase the fear of becoming a victim of aggression. For a few, there is a direct causal link between exposure to violence and subsequent aggressive and violent behavior.

In a recent interview you spoke of your Christian faith and referred to the concept of the "unguarded soul." What do you mean by that?

One who is receptive to anything yet lacks discernment. I believe our society is losing our mystic connection to what is plainly right, while tolerating too much of what is plainly wrong.

The home, the school and the church used to be places where the moral compass was set. If a child is given a clear notion of what is right and wrong, they will have the fortitude to hold onto what they have learned and truly believe. Then these external forces, with all their temptations, will not prevail against a moral code which cannot be shattered. If the soul of society is left unguarded then we should not be surprised by today's startling statistics.

In his State of the Union address U.S. President Bill Clinton claimed the V-Chip could become a powerful voice against teen violence, teen pregnancy and teen drug use. Do you worry that this has become a magic wand?

I find some of these actions very disturbing. This whole issue has become so politicized and there is no way technology will ever be able to solve all of our problems. In so much as television contributes to the problem, I believe the V-chip can contribute to a solution.

I worry, however, when I start to see the technology used for political gain, a reluctance from the creative community (such as the television and film industries) to take responsibility for the present situation.

Some people argue the V-chip is being presented as a replacement for parental responsibility and a sensitive, responsive industry. What do you do in your own home?

We never had a TV until two years ago when my second child was born. We now have an assortment of kids videos and cable. We specifically limit the amount of TV to certain mornings and we control what is seen.

The V-chip will allow parents to customize viewing by filtering programs based on content, type, theme and even specific program titles. It will also allow you to set up viewing only during certain times of the day and restrict total viewing time using a TV allowance feature. The technology gets rid of the usual confrontation and can be a useful tool in analyzing what type of programs a family wants to watch.

The V-chip has renewed debate over free speech. There was talk that it violated the First Amendment. In New York you met with executives of NBC, ABC and CBS. What were their objections? What did you do to inform them and reassure them?

The networks are obviously concerned when anything might decrease their viewing audience. Broadcasters have a responsibility to advertisers and viewers (in that order).

The main point I raised with them was that this technology can allow you to respond to the segment of your audience that may be concerned about potentially objectionable material while still respecting the preferences of your (larger) audience.

No one is saying they can't broadcast certain programs - there is no censorship. This technology should allow broadcasters to target their audience better and if viewers turn away from certain types of programs, those are market forces already in effect, not censorship.

Reporters notice the photo of Clinton and the V-chip and also the Challenger in your office. What lessons do you get from the space shuttle photo? And why photos of Einstein and The Blues Brothers?
The Challenger was launched despite some serious warnings from the engineers who designed the thing. Sometimes we should listen to common sense despite economic and political pressures. I think Einstein said, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." Jake and Elwood Blues were on a mission from God.

Give us a sense of how busy it has been for you in recent months.

At one point in February, I couldn't put the phone down before it rang again.

Over the span of four days I conducted 12 TV interviews, six radio interviews, one open line and spoke in Toronto, Nashville, New York City, Washington and Vancouver. I never counted newspaper articles. I think there were over 7,000 references to V-chip in the Nexus database at last count and I haven't done a search for my name or SFU in that regard.

The highest moment?

Working with people who really believed in the project and provided encouragement and support - my wife, J.R., Shaw Cable and hundreds of parents who called me and wrote letters.

The lowest?

I haven't had any yet.

What have you learned from all this - perhaps something you want to share with the university community?

I love teaching and feel privileged to work in an environment that encourages initiative, entrepreneurial activity and collaboration. There is always room for new ideas but you need to have a passion to see them through to fruition.

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