Staff Interview

Kelly Fennig, Staff Interviewer

I had the privilege of working with Tim Collings and his V-Chip. A year ago, I gave demonstrations of earlier designs to many curious onlookers at Metrotown and SFU. A lot has changed in a year and it looks like the is no slowing down for Mr. Collings' invention. With the recent passing of legislation in the U.S. and European governments to make installation of the V-Chip mandatory in all new television sets, it looks like Tim may become a household name. Recently, I took some time from my friend's very busy schedule to talk about his invention, now that it is in full throttle and racing for the finish line.

Kelly Fennig: Well Tim, it has been over a year since I did work for the V-Chip ...

Tim Collings: (chuckles) Yeah, it's been a while.

KF: ... and who knew that your little wonder would grow to be what it is today. It's been quite the year.

TC: It's been a pretty amazing year, yeah. I'm kind of amazed myself.

KF: I guess a lot has changed over the year since my last take with the chip. Where's it at now?

TC: We're conducting a third phase of testing in 4 cities across Canada with 12 broadcasters.

We put boxes in homes and we give broadcast-ers some guidelines for rating and we try to say, "Okay, here's some ... age categories like G, PG, A, and R. For violence, language and sex we have a scale from 0 to 5, with 0 having a little and 5 having lots. And they work out guidelines for 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, in each of those categories. We give the same information to parents and say, "Okay, use this information here, this framework, to choose which levels you want in each category."

Then the broadcasters do the same thing and what we do is, throughout the test, we see if what they [the broadcasters] are sending out, in terms of the rating, reflects what the actual content is. If a discrepancy is there, you have to work that in. Hopefully, the guidelines are what we call "objective," being that you [the user] don't have to make a lot of judgment calls to that extent [with res-pect to the content]. It seems to have worked really well.

KF: I guess it has the same type of interface that it had before with the little block bars read on the screen for the ratings.

TC: Yeah, did you see the latest interface for this? (Tim is excited and he grabs a little black box resembling a keychain).

KF: No actually I haven't.

TC: Let me show it to you really quick here. (Tim turns on the television in his office. A televsion show is on with a couple wearing bathrobes. Tim picks up the "keychain," points it at the screen and presses the little button on the top of the keychain. The screen goes black and is replaced with 4 red vertical bar graphs.) Did you have this? (Tim looks at the "keychain".)

KF: No, I didn't.

TC: You had the little switches on the back? (grinning)

KF: The good ol' rotary dial interface.

TC: Yeah, this one is a little different. Here we've got the four categories [on the screen]. Nice and sweet display, huh? (big grin)

KF: I'll say, better than the old "Atari" type display earlier.

TC: (Tim presses the "keychain" some more) See, you can move around the screen with this little key here (referring to the device in his hand). It's meant to attach to a keychain to keep with you so the children don't get a hold of it. And if you want to change the levels in any of the categories, you just press the little arrow [on the key].

KF: I see you changed the number of levels [for each category] from before. I believe you had eight or nine levels before.

TC: Yeah, violence, sex and language was from 0 to 9 actually; now its 0 to 5. It's just a little easier.

KF: Are there predefined levels settings for the ratings categories like, for example G rating? Could you customize the categories for the rating?

TC: G, for instance, corresponds to 0, 0 and 0. Anything rated G must not have any controversial content in any of the three categories. PG might have a level 2 in violence, maybe nothing; it just depends on the film, right? It could be high in violence, language or sex or a combination. As you go up the [ratings] scale, the values increase.

KF: So what you are saying is that the levels for the categories are predefined for each rating?

TC: That's right. Really, if you look at levels in these categories as your basis (Tim switches the to the 'PG' rating on the display), you could take some of this information and map them into the categories.

KF: Therefore, you can create your own custom map, as well as those predefined for the G, PG, A, and R ratings.

TC: Yes.

KF: What does the 'E' at the bottom of each level bar stand for?

TC: Exempt.

KF: That means what, "no holds barred?"

TC: Right. This current program is coming in at an 'A'; rated a 4 in violence, a 4 in language and a 3 in sex, so it's above the ratings in all of the categories.

KF: So when the show goes above the levels the screen will blank out like this and display the configuration screen we see right now, displaying the current levels of sex, violence and language as it did when I originally worked with it?

TC: Yes, just like this.

KF: Are the levels dynamic? Are they changing?

TC: They can change if the program changes, but usually they stay the same throughout the whole program. You can remove the blocking [of the signal] with this little parameter here (moving the cursor to the upper corner of the screen). Before we had to move all the level arrows up to the top to watch the pro-gram. Now you can just turn [the parameter] off, the block counts down and the program comes back on.

KF: Counts down?

TC: We added this little diagnostic over here in the corner. (points to the bottom right corner of the screen. There is a 10 second counter in the corner that decreases).

KF: I see. So everything goes back down to exempt.

TC: Right. (The counter expires and the screen comes back on) So that's how it works. (Tim leans back in his chair). It's getting better, I mean, we're very close. It's almost in its final form here although we have to integrate it into the cable box you see here.

KF: So the blocking screen will come up for the language too.

TC: If a signal is higher in any category it will block the signal.

KF: In the case of language it won't just block the sound?

TC: No.

KF: And does it blank out for_

TC: For as long as the ratings are higher than you have set.

KF: Are the signals like impulses? What I mean is, for the language case, a person would say an expletive that would only last a second. The person might say, "why you dirty little son-of-a-__."

TC: Well, our feedback that we got from people on language is that they just don't want to see it; they don't want to hear it. They would rather just have it block the signal. We could have it set up so that it just blocked the soundtrack for that portion but, like I said, it's all just part of the content. Like I said, the rating is applied for the whole program. We tried it by scene and they [the test-ers] didn't like it. They didn't like the disruption. They didn't know when it was coming back on. They didn't want to watch it cutting in and out, so they didn't want to watch it at all, I guess.

KF: Okay, let's switch to a completely different topic from the function of the V-Chip. What was the inspiration be-hind it? It obviously was quite the creative project so you must have had some motivation or reason to do this.

TC: I guess, as an engineer and a parent; I guess mostly as an engineer, you are always looking for solutions to some kind of a problem, whether it is, in this case, kind of a societal problem. It seemed to me that, with the technology of television and what you are capable of doing, [the V-Chip was] the best way to respond to people's concerns with violence on television and not affect those who feel that they want to be creative and put something out there to a large audience. You have to understand that the people who are complaining are a really small percentage and you just can't block out programs that are offensive to the few. If you can provide the technology to those few so that they can turn it off, then that is pretty much less objectionable to those masses who wanted to watch the certain program.

KF: I guess it also can free up the creativity of the producers, so they could create more "adult" oriented programs that could be shown in prime time that your children won't be able to watch because of how you, the parent, set up the chip.

TC: Yeah, I think they could get a little more creative, but I don't see broad-casters showing adult stuff during prime-time. There will still be watershed hours. The code of Broadcasting in Canada says that we can't show certain things before 9:00 and I don't think they will change that. It does mean that if you want to produce something, you could go ahead and produce it. Everything is subjective to the producers' ability to attract advertising dollars. What would concern the broadcasters is that if enough people are blocking it out, the program's [Nielson] ratings would fall and, therefore, advertisers would not further sponsor that program.

KF: Is there actually a way of keeping track of who is blocking what?

TC: That's a good question actually. With the emergence of interactive 2-way cable, it is conceivable that you could have a system that monitors the levels set up by the parent so that [the cable company] could have some knowledge of who the show is reaching and who it is not reaching. So at the moment, the answer is no.

KF: So then it could be in the future like a Neilsons' type rating?

TC: Could be, yeah. Of course, one of the arguments apart from Neilsons' is that the TV might be tuned into a program but no one might be watching it. With Neilsons', they actually determine how many people are watching it.

KF: So you think there is a big market for the V-Chip?

TC: I think there is. I mean, just in terms of numbers, we're talking about huge numbers of people who own televisions. Even in the cable market, Canada has over 8 million cable subscribers, and you have to realize that over 20% of them have children. So right there, your potential market is pretty huge plus only if 10% of the people [buy the V-chip], you are still talking about hundreds of thousands of people.

KF: Over the last year, you just added another child to the family. (Tim chuckles) Does this add to your conviction to make TV "safe"?

TC: Well I think parents still have to take responsibility for bringing up their children and I don't the think the V-Chip will abdicate parents of that responsibility, but give parents tools of which to make their decisions. You see so many programs on the cable network and, really, parents don't have time to watch or really care about the content. They don't have time to follow what their kid is watching. I shouldn't say that, some parents do. But the fact of the matter is if you have a tool, very simply you can pull up the content and use that content to block certain types of programs, that's a pretty very valuable tool for you to have as a parent. It gives you some comfort level as to what your kids are watching and what they aren't watching.

KF: This tool is especially valuable now in the 90's where usually both parents have careers outside the home and when the child comes home, there is no one there so they sit in front of the TV and entertain themselves.

TC: Yeah, that's right, and in many cases that's the case. Even when you're watching television with your kids, you could be totally embarrassed if you are watching something that you feel is okay and all of a sudden some image will come across and hit you by surprise. You know, it makes you feel helpless in that situation; you didn't anticipate it coming.

KF: Literally caught with the "pants down" so to speak.

TC: (Laughs) Very well put Kelly, very well put. Pants down. (Interview interrupted by a telephone call. It is one of his colleagues In the U.S. talking about some matters with the chip.)

KF: So, moving on, do you see this technology not just on TV but on Video cassettes and Laserdiscs as well?

TC: Well certainly it could expand into any of these markets because it's all encoded in the vertical interval. As long as our [TV] sets remain the same in analog nature, taking an analog signal be it from satellite, or digital video compression, or video cassette of video disc, all the information could be put into that media. So, yeah, it could be moved into any one of those areas.

KF: Here's a purely curiosity question: What was the initial financing of this project? Did it initially come out of your pocket?

TC: Initially, I approached the univers-ity. This was before the Project Development Fund [PDF] ... I guess the mechanism for engineering is that if you have an idea of research, you have to show it has demonstrable benefit to your department. So what I did was I ap-proached the university to _ (Bob de Wit from the University Industrial Liason's office enters the office to talk to Tim about some more V-Chip matters and about a Mr. Manning. After a 10 minute closed door meeting our interview resumes.)

TC: Yeah, Bob's trying to help out and get this thing happening with the liason's office because it wasn't happening 4 years ago when I first approached them ... Well anyway, I guess the bottom line is that I didn't get support so I decided to do it on my own. So I worked on my own, out of my own pocket, out of my own garage. I paid my own legal expenses and everything else. But it paid off because Shaw Cable approached me through some promotion by the CRTC [Canadian Radio and Television Commission] and a couple of other people that heard about what I was doing and [Shaw Cable] approached me and offered to fund the project there on in and fund the testing of the system. Tens of thousands of dollars later.

KF: Date reference, how long ago was this?

TC: About three years ago. And we stared testing it a year later, so two years ago. And [Shaw's] been wonder-ful all the way along. Without them it would never have happened, that's for sure.

KF: The support you are getting for the project, are you getting more support for it in Canada or in the United States?

TC: Well, you see in Canada, it proceed-ed more on the tests and we really haven't had to deal with the legislation. The government hasn't really become involved and twisted the arms of the industry and said, "You will see this technology through." On the other hand, in the States, there's so much resistance to it that it required legis-lation to get the ball rolling. So it's kind of nice that we're at this point where Canada has tested it and we have shown that it can work as a demonstrative solution. The U.S. has the legislative power to "make it so" and get the manufacturing up and rolling. So I guess it is the best of both worlds.

KF: So how did you get your exposure into the U.S.?

TC: There is a congressman down there named Ed Markey who heard about what was going on here and adap-ted a bill that he has been trying to push through for years to respond to the concerns of parents, the same concerns down there with broadcasters, but he didn't have the all-encompassing ratings system we were testing. They [Markey's supporters] were trying to push forward something saying the programs were violent and they only concentrated on the violence. We were dealing with more of a multi-dimensional ratings system that applied not just to violence but other categories, as well, and had numbers of levels not just 'this program is violent' / 'This program is not violent'. You know; one-bit mentality as opposed to our multi-dimensional classification. So that was what really spring-boarded the whole idea into some sense of acceptability in the States and not having to provide a test for them be-cause they observed what was going on up here in Canada and made it move a lot quicker through the [US legal] system.

KF: Do you think some of the apprehension to US acceptability could possibly be the "Canadian" issue?

TC: Possibly the Canadian thing, but I think it's more along the lines of the First Amendment. The First Amendment, whenever you bring in something like freedom of expression, even though I don't feel this inhibits freedom of expression, but you can sort of paint a picture of it as infringing on the First Amendment. Broadcasters have tried to do that. They are trying to say, "Big Brother is telling us how to rate pro-grams, therefore we won't be able to broadcast certain programs." ... Anyway, like I say, the stars must be aligning because everything is hap-pening all at once. I get to go down to the White House and see the President, I get to go to New York City and talk to network executives. Last week, the European Parliament in Strausburg, France, passed a ... I should let you read the provision, it's passed the V-Chip Bill. It mentions that it is done by Canadians, it's really wild. (Tim opens his email and loads his copy of the provision)

KF: The V-Chip bill?!?

TC: (Laughs) Yeah, the V-Chip bill.

KF: Good lead-in to my next question, the global impact of the chip.

TC: That's what I mean; it's a worldwide phenomenon. (The email finally pops up onto the screen. We skim through the document from CP in Paris, France)

TC: Here it is. (Tim skims through picking the document aloud) "... The European Parliament voted a law to force European television makers to install the device in new TV sets." (laughs) "... part of an amendment to a larger bill on television programming ... passed by a large majority of a 628 person assembly."

TC: (Tim's voice picks up a bit when reading the next part) "... Tim Collings, 34, told CP Saturday, he was 'amazed and excited. It just seems that nothing is going to stop this thing from gaining worldwide acceptance.' (Tim chuckles. He directs me to the document and points out a familiar name) See, Simon Fraser gets mentioned every time. You gotta like that.

KF: I guess SFU is giving more support now seeing as you are getting more worldwide attention. They are starting to acknowledge the project?

TC: Well, wouldn't you? (Tim continues to scan the document aloud)

TC: "... I am honoured to have the European government mention the Canadian-ness of the invention." See, now they are not reluctant to mention the Canadian-ness of the invention, whereas, you were right in the States ... Here's the actual article. (Tim pulls up another copy of the document)

TC: It's always fun to see stuff like the acknowledgment of Canada. When stuff like that happens you just think, "Wow this is really cool." When will stuff like this ever happen to me again?

KF: Looks like your fifteen minutes of fame ...

TC: ... is running way into overtime.

KF: So how can you find the time to do it? Is it still the one-man operation?

TC: No, I have a lot of great resources from the cable industry, and now that this has become big, the university has given me time to deal with it. Before I was taking up my vacation time. I get 4 weeks of vacation, but I was using it up just on this. I had all this carried-over vacation over the years and I just ate it up. I just couldn't continue to operate unless I took a leave of absence, which isn't out of the realm of possibility at one point. Now they are giving me 4 or 5 days a month to deal with it, which is plenty.

KF: It is more than you had before. You could get more, couldn't you?

TC: Yeah, but it's all I asked for and, in order to do my regular stuff I do and being a family man, it's enough.

KF: So you have 3 kids in total 2 girls and a ...

TC: ... son, I have a son 8 months old, Big Luke. Luke the Drifter. That was a Clint Eastwood movie.

KF: That's an old one. In his early western years. Good movie. Do you find you have enough time to do what you have to do with teaching and family et al?

TC: You have to make time. You have to get in here early in the morning, 6:00 the phone starts ringing from back east. You have to do your duties here. It's good to be outside the lab so people can come and bug me (grin).

KF: Pretty popular guy now with our what, 3 interruptions in 40 minutes.

TC: (Chuckles) Yeah, pretty popular guy. It's fine. I seem to be able to multitask quite well. Been doing that for a long time.

KF: I remember about a year ago you joked that I should give the sales pitch for this thing. Well, you seem to be doing a mighty fine job on your own without my help. Heck, the thing practically sells itself.

TC: (Laughs) It does. It's really amazing. You don't really have to do a big sales job on it. Don't have to hire a sales and marketing department. And all the press, you can never dream to have that much press coverage for a product launch. It's worked out well.

KF: What do you see in V-Chip's future?

TC: I think it'll open up for a lot of different possibilities. There are a lot of products that could be developed. The technology has provisions in it for transmitting more additional infor-mation _ (The phone rings yet again for a quick conversation with Jaques Vaisey.)

TC: Manufacturers from all over the world have been calling, so there will be lots of work over the next little while.

KF: So what is the projected price for the V-Chip in the marketplace?

TC: We're immediately going to roll it out in two different forms: a full-feat-ured cable box for $100, and an add-on device for those with existing cable boxes for a $50 price. And for those that will be in-stalled in the new sets, about a dollar.

KF: How was the Donahue experience?

TC: Donahue was great. You can watch it; it's on this Friday [February 23] at 3:00 on U.TV. Didn't get bumped this time. He took the adversarial role. There were a panel of 5 people: 3 people agreed, 2 disagreed. He got the audi-ence in there. He was being his typical Phil self.

KF: The audience showed a lot of support?

TC: Oh yeah, afterwards people came up and played with the setup, asked lots of questions. It was a lot of fun.

KF: So I guess that means that you have encoded samples to demo with.

TC: The piece I showed you was en-coded. As well, all the shows you get off of Superchannel are also encoded. The call earlier in our talk was trying to get BCTV and U.TV and we got KVOS and we're trying to get a couple more in Seattle to participate in the next tests.

KF: What is Bubba (US president Bill Clinton) really like?

TC: Bubba's a ... (laughs) I haven't met Bubba yet. I have just spoken to him on the phone. I met Al Gore, he's a very nice man, very smart, but only has a couple of minutes to talk with because he is a very busy man. They're both nice. I spent a lot of time with senators and congressmen. They're very articulate, they're ... politicians! They're very good at speaking and very supportive.

KF: This is an election year. Do you think things may change?

TC: Well, the V-chip has already become an election issue. Bob Dole is putting forth his platform which is saying we have to cut down on the stuff coming out of Hollywood. Clinton is saying, "No, we don't necessarily need to do that if we have controls that parents could use."

KF: When do you expect final deliverables of the chip?

TC: I expect to see the classification system finalized by summer and see it in some sort of product form by the end of the year.

KF: You realize you are going to be a very famous person?

TC: As you can see I have a problem getting through the door, my head's so huge. (laughs) I don't really feel the pressure. It's nice to get a lot of atten-tion, but it's nice to get the word out about what this technology can do. It's been a lot of fun. It's like in the movie Big with Tom Hanks. Y'know, after [Tom hanks] had his fill of fame, fortune, the girl and the New York apartment, he just wanted to be the way he was before.

KF: You'll carry with future work for the chip?

TC: Nah, I don't want to be known as V-Chip man. Sure I'll be known as the guy who invented the V-Chip, but I'm not going to stay in that industry. I would rather do what I do here: teach, research. Who knows, maybe I'll invent some new things. We'll probably spin the chip off to some people to do the work on it. I won't be involved in the day to day operations. Maybe more of the mentor / advisor role.

KF: In retrospect, would you do it all again?

TC: Sure. I am sure I will do it all again. I'll be involved in many things. Look-ing back, I have no regrets. (Tim breaks into song) Regrets ... I've had a few ...

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