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Improvements Needed
Who Are the Decisionmakers?

Why We Need a Better TV Ratings System

The new TV parental guidelines ratings system that went into effect this year is far from perfect, but it’s a start on something we absolutely need. We must have a system in place to work with the V-chips that will be installed in all new televisions beginning in 1998. (The V stands for violence, not values.) By combining a ratings system with V-chip technology, parents will be able to block out programming at a specified level, if they can figure out the instructions without asking their children for assistance.

Some adults have said they welcome help in monitoring what children watch on TV. This is especially true when the kids are home alone after school while both parents are at work. Grandparents and other adults who care for someone else’s children have also expressed gratitude for assistance. But other people consider any system an interference they don’t want or need.

Improvements Needed

Some critics ask why a new system was invented for TV instead of using the same ratings used for theatrical films. The new TV labels have been described as confusing, irrelevant, incomplete and nothing but a pacifier. The age-based system does, however, help distinguish a TV-Y program aimed at kids (Muppet Babies) from a TV-G program made for a general audience (Touched by an Angel).

Some of the confusion concerns the fact that usually the ratings icon appears in a top corner of the screen for about 15 seconds at the beginning of a program without any explanation of what the symbol means. Is TV-14 worse or better than TV-M? (Compared to film ratings, TV-14 is similar to PG-13 and TV-M is similar to R.) And why can’t they repeat the rating throughout a program, such as after each commercial?

Another complaint concerns the lack of content-based ratings, in addition to or instead of the present age-based system. NYPD Blue and other programs aired warnings about content even before the new system went into effect. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said the TV industry is keeping contents vague because "advertisers won’t want their name to be associated with anything that has a V (for violence), S (for sex) or L (for language) attached to it," reported Newsweek.

The need for advertising that’s appropriate for specific programming is another subject raised by concerned parents. For example, some ads (laxatives, feminine hygiene products) are not suitable for TV-G programs. This can be controlled best through complaints to the advertisers, who select the programs they sponsor.

Even with a content-based system, parents will still need to rate programs for values. Beverly Hills, 90210, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Friends all air on different nights and on different stations during what was once called the family hour. Dr. Quinn undoubtedly is the winner in family values but also has its share of bedroom scenes. Should all three of these programs receive the same ratings and warnings for sexual content?

Some episodes of Jerry Springer and the movie Schindler’s List were rated TV-M. There’s no doubt that Schindler included more nudity, profane language and violence than any of the Springer episodes, but that doesn’t make the talk show the better choice.

Who Are the Decisionmakers?

The networks and cable channels rate their own programs, using uniform guidelines. All programs, except sports and news, are rated. Each episode is reviewed separately. Thus, ER may be rated TV-PG one week and TV-14 another. But it’s unlikely that a regular series will change drastically from one episode to another. Parents say they need the most help judging specials and movies made for TV.

Many publications explain and list the ratings, which sometimes change before a program airs. TV Guide publishes the ratings in its listings. But jeers to TV Guide for its now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t explanation of the ratings on the "Four-star Movies" page for a few weeks in February, then moving it or deleting it altogether from the publication. (At press time it was not listed on the "Contents" page. A regular box on "The Family Page" would be helpful.)

At a February 27 hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, senators criticized the TV ratings system as "vague and useless," reported Gannett News Service and The Associated Press. They echoed the often-heard criticism that the present system provides too little information and needs warnings regarding content.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, oversaw the development of the TV ratings. Earlier this year, he emphasized that the age-based system "is not a surrogate parent" and that a content-based system would be too complicated to use with V-chip technology. At the Senate hearing, he continued his objection to a system that would warn about violence, sex and language.

We need a TV ratings system that includes enough details to be useful and informative. But it also needs to be simple enough to function with V-chip technology in new televisions. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) needs to give its approval to such a system. You can help make a difference by calling the FCC’s toll-free comment number (888-225-5322) and by discussing your value-based system with your kids as you watch TV together.—M.J.D.

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