TV: Overrated?

Culture | What the controversial new rating system really means

Issue: "Social Security," Jan. 11, 1997

Almost everyone is dissatisfied with the vague, age-based ratings system devised by the television industry in response to political pressure to stop polluting young minds.

Parents' organizations, cultural activists, and both liberal and conservative experts are calling for specific descriptions of a program's content-such as S for sex; L for bad language; V for violence-so that parents can know exactly what in a program might be problematic. TV moguls, on the other hand, are worried that some sponsors might, for example, set a policy of refusing to advertise on any show rated &quotS." Under their rating system, guidelines are set for different age levels-in effect, deciding for the parents which shows are suitable for their children.

Since Washington stands ready to impose a rating system unless the industry comes up with one on its own, the networks' voluntary and self-assigning ratings system must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission in February.

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Hollywood's ratings czar Jack Valenti, also in charge of the Motion Picture Association of America's movie ratings (and we have seen how effective they are), defied the critics, announcing that the new system will be implemented unilaterally. Furthermore, he said that &quotsome very expensive First Amendment lawyers" have been hired and that if the FCC tries to impose some other system of mandatory ratings, &quotwe'll be in court in a nano-second." President Clinton urged that the new system be tried for at least 10 months.

So, for the reference of WORLD readers, here is a guide to the new rating system, with a few further thoughts to consider:

&quotYoung?" Children's programming suitable for all ages, with no sex, violence, or naughty words.

Children's programming suitable for children 7 and older. May include Ren and Stimpy-type grossness and cartoonish, slapstick violence. But aren't children over 7 the ones who are beating up their playmates?

Material suitable for all audiences. What all television was in its golden years.

Parental Guidance. Occasional coarse language, limited violence, and some sexually suggestive talk and situations. Most prime-time sit-coms would get this rating.

Material inappropriate for children under 14. This would include controversial themes, strong language, and strong sexual content. Prime-time soaps like Melrose Place would get this rating. But in what sense are such shows actually appropriate for children over 14? Aren't teenagers precisely the ones at risk from TV's sexually charged fantasies?

For mature audiences only, those who can handle profanity, graphic violence, and explicit sex. Note the oxymoronic use of &quotmature" to describe immature tastes. The industry points out that very few, if any, network programs would deserve this equivalent of an R-rating. But with the cover of a TV-M rating, producers could consider parents duly warned and thus feel free to cross some lines. Just as R-rated movies exploded when ratings were instituted, expect the same for M-rated TV shows. Also expect the problems ratings were designed to solve to keep getting worse.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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