Will Kids Pay the Price for Recall Failures?

Will Kids Pay the Price for Recall Failures?

David K. Aylward

The FCC requires consumer communications product, in this case digital televisions, to meet certain specifications to protect the public interest. Nevertheless, manufacturers and retail outlets have sold tens of thousands of digital televisions that violate the FCC’s rules due to defective and/or missing software. (Digital televisions are now little computers; software controls them.) The violation has only been discovered because compliance with the FCC rules requires specific software, and that means paying a small company an intellectual property license fee for its use in each television. The little company noticed a huge gap between its license fees for its intellectual property and the number of digital televisions sold in the US; it complained to the FCC.

What’s the problem? The highly controversial V-Chip. Overcoming violent opposition from the television and consumer electronics industries, in 1996 Congress required all televisions to contain an electronic chip (now just a part of the overall software of digital televisions) that allows parents to block specific channels or shows of certain ratings they do not want their children to see. Recognizing that ratings would (or should) be improved to provide more detail over time, the FCC required that after March 16, 2006, all digital TVs sold in the US contain a “V-Chip 2.0” that allows upgrading the ratings software in those existing TVs. The inventor of the V-Chip, Canadian Professor Tim Collings, has always been focused on this advanced capability. “Parents want to choose good programming, not just block bad shows,” he says.

Ironically, at the very time when so much attention is being paid to the digital video transition, a very large percentage of the digital televisions sold in the US over the last two years lack V-Chip 2.0; in other words, their “firmware” is defective.

The FCC is trying to figure out the problem. Its Enforcement Bureau and then the FCC itself are trying to come up with a solution, presumably some combination of fines and remedial action. The level of fines should be related to the remedial action each company takes. Unfortunately, in the first case out of the chute the FCC only proposed to fine the Funai Corporation. Last November, it proposed a $7.7 million fine for Funai, using a schedule of fines per TV that ranges from $12.50 to $62 based on the volume sold in violation of the rule.

The FCC’s objective should be to fix the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again. In this field fines usually are too small to change behavior, and they certainly don’t fix the problem. Consumers still have a faulty television. Recalls tend to be a joke. In example after example we see that most people don’t respond to recall letters anyway. In this case, no recall has so far been required. More relevantly, recalls only work if consumers act on them. Any recall letter can hardly tell me my life is threatened if I don’t act. The defective capability will be used in the future when the ratings get better, i.e. I am losing nothing today by not having a V-Chip 2.0. Even if there was an immediate benefit, does anyone think a lot of parents are going to take 42 inch plasma TVs off their wall brackets (safest as a two person job) and lug them back to Best Buy for a software download? Get real.

It looks like the huge Korean conglomerate LG was also a violator. Without PR or ceremony LG supposedly has created a solution place on its website. Do we really think consumers are going to stumble onto the link on LG’s website, download a patch onto a memory stick, and plug it into a USB port on their TV? I am not the best internet searcher, but I spent 15 minutes on LG’s website and couldn’t find it.

The solution is for the manufacturers and/or retailers to come to houses and fix the defective software, or at least mail thumb drives and clear instructions to the buyers. Anything less will not solve the problem.

Of course, if digital televisions were treated by their manufacturers like our office and home computers, the solution would be a snap. One could automatically download an upgrade, a “patch”, directly into the device. Consumers, especially the kids who are supposed to be protected by the V-Chip, should not have to pay the price for manufacturers not thinking ahead, or manufacturers hoping the FCC doesn’t care enough to force compliance now and in the future.

David Aylward first got involved with trying to improve children’s television in 1977 as the Legislative Director to then-U.S. Representative Tim Wirth (D-Colo). His first congressional hearing was about how to reduce violence on television. This focus continued in his subsequent role as Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the US House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Consumer Protection and Finance in the early 1980s. Since leaving Capitol Hill, he has been a communications technology, business and policy consultant to a wide variety of public, private and non-profit organizations, and has continued his interest in the positive and negative power of television with children. His primary activity today is managing COMCARE Emergency Response Alliance. daylward@natstrat.com