A few weeks ago, a friend had a cable jack installed in his bedroom, then slowly went bananas trying to get his TV to work properly. No matter what he tried, it would always skip some channels.
Naturally, he blamed the cable company, which responded by dispatching a young technician to check out the signal and the new wall jack. Nothing wrong with either one. Then the lad had an inspiration: He pressed the setup button on the remote control, inspected an on-screen menu and pronounced the problem solved.
"He told me someone had turned on the channel blocker," my friend said. "I never knew there was such a thing as a channel blocker."
Nor do most Americans. That's why the broadcast industry will spend $300 million on public service TV ads over the next 18 months to let adults know about the device, which is built into late-model television sets and is known technically as the V-chip.
My friend, by the way, inherited his TV set from a relative. Somewhere along the line - intentionally or not - someone had activated its V-chip, and to my friend it looked like a glitch in his cable service.
Surveys show that less than 20 percent of adults have ever used the V-chip, and the majority, like my friend, probably have no idea that it exists.
For the record, the V-chip is a circuit built into TVs larger than 13 inches manufactured since Jan. 1, 2000. It was mandated in 1996 by a Congress in a political uproar over children's exposure to unsuitable programming. (Some things never change.)
The chip allows parents to block shows using an industry rating system based on the viewer's age and the show's content (violence, sex or coarse language).
These are similar to the movie ratings used by the Motion Picture Association of America (G, PG-13, R, etc.), but more finely drawn and more complicated - which bothers some critics. V-chips can also block movies based on MPAA ratings.
If you have a set-top cable or satellite TV box (analog or digital), it probably offers an additional set of parental controls that can block shows by rating or by channel.
Whether you use the set's built-in V-chip or your cable box, parental controls are available by pressing the setup button on your remote. Your settings are protected by a pass code that you can choose - preferably something the kids won't guess.
Although most of the on-screen menus aren't hard to figure out, the user manual that came with your TV or cable box can provide details on using the parental controls.
If you don't have the manual, you might be able to download it from the manufacturer's Web site. Just make sure you know the exact model - it's usually on a plate on the back of the TV, or the bottom of the set-top box.
Why do so few people use these controls? Conservative family advocacy groups, such as the Parents Television Council, complain that the entire system is unworkable. They argue that the rating system is too complex, and that too many shows have the wrong ratings.
Others say the V-chip is a failure because its presence isn't obvious to parents who don't read deep into the TV's instruction manual. How many of us - parents or not - bother to do that?
So critics are again taking their case to Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.
This being an election year, Congress knows it's hard to go wrong with this issue - everyone is against indecency. Members also recall the public indignation over the sight of Janet Jackson's bare breast during a few now-infamous seconds of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
In the spring, lawmakers increased the maximum fine for indecency violations by broadcasters tenfold, to $325,000 per incident. The FCC is also tightening its rules on what constitutes a violation, and what broadcasters must bleep out.
Broadcasters were hoping their public service campaign would dissuade Congress from taking this kind of drastic action. It didn't. And now the critics want more. They complain that the FCC's indecency rules affect only over-the-air broadcasters - while some of the most offensive shows are found on cable-only channels.
Some groups want the FCC's rules to apply to all cable stations - although it's doubtful the government has that authority. Cable, after all, is a business deal between you and the cable company. Unlike broadcast TV, you have to sign up and pay for cable. The cable company's right to deliver content you want to buy is substantially protected by the First Amendment.
Still, critics are trying. One of their vehicles is the Family Choice Act of 2006, sponsored by Reps. Daniel Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat, and Tom Osborne, a Nebraska Republican. It would require cable and satellite providers to choose one of three equally (to them) unpalatable options. They could adhere to the same FCC indecency rules that broadcasters face, allow subscribers to opt out of objectionable channels and receive a refund, or offer a package of "family friendly" channels that would exclude shows with adult-oriented ratings between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
I doubt this will go anywhere. House members can already tell constituents that they fought indecency with the new FCC fines. And they get far too much campaign money from the cable, satellite and entertainment industries to rock their financial model - if Congress could do so and pass constitutional muster.
The Senate has already killed a bill sponsored by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain that would force cable operators to offer a la carte programming. That legislation has the same goal - allowing parents to decide what shows come into their house, without paying for content they don't want.
So, for the time being, parents are left with the V-chip and their cable company's parental controls. You can get a look at the industry's V-chip awareness campaign at www.TheTVBoss.org.
One of the public service ads is hilarious - featuring a soccer mom telling a bunch of Sopranos-like characters that the episode in which they whacked Vinnie was too violent for her kids, and henceforth she's blocking them.
Still, it's hard to say whether the campaign will get parents interested in using the V-chip. The cable industry spent $200 million on a similar campaign a while back and got nowhere.
If you're a parent and don't like what your kids are watching, visit the V-chip campaign Web site. You'll find links to explanations of the rating system (more complex than it should be, but not rocket science), as well as generic instructions for setting parental controls. It's a lot more productive than complaining.