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TV: Third Rate

Culture | TV ratings beset by vague, inconsistent application

Issue: "JOhn Q. Citizen," Feb. 8, 1997

The television industry's new rating system is not only vague in its design; it is proving inconsistent in its application. A recent X-Files was gripping, but its plethora of gruesomely decaying corpses would seem to call for more than a PG rating. A particularly raunchy episode of Friends also earned a mere PG. &quotMaybe it should have been TV14," conceded NBC executive Warren Littlefield. &quotThis whole thing is so new, we're still finding our way."

Movie ratings are assigned by an independent board. TV ratings are assigned by the networks themselves, so such inconsistencies can be expected.

One confusion is that though the TV ratings seem to be modeled after movie ratings, the two systems are not the same. &quotPG" for a movie is generally taken as being suitable for family viewing. The letters, however, stand for &quotparental guidance" and were originally meant to warn children away. That &quotG" movies are hardly ever made anymore and that &quotPG" has become a mild rating are symptoms of the shifting--and lowering--standards in the film industry and in our culture. Right now, at the beginning of TV ratings, &quotTV-PG" means that parental guidance really is called for.

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Parents should remember that there are basically three ratings that mean a program is probably (at least in the network's dubious opinion) suitable for young children: TV-Y, TV-7, and TV-G. The other three ratings signal adult programming: TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-M.

Meanwhile, NBC has announced the showing of what will probably be the first show to earn a TV-M. On February 23, the network will air Schindler's List. The moving story of a German businessman who rescues Jews from the Nazis contains concentration camp nudity and the violence of genocide. In keeping with the film's serious subject matter, its sponsor, Ford Motor Company, will show the movie without commercial interruptions, with only one two-minute commercial at the beginning and one at the end. Few would object to the dignified treatment of nightmarish reality in Schindler's List, but once the TV-M barrier comes down, less laudable

R-rated movies will not be far behind.

As networks and parents struggle to &quotfind their way" through the new rating system, perhaps the best comment was made by bestselling scary novelist Stephen King. &quotAs somebody who's raised three kids," he observed, &quotmy idea of rating is, if I don't want them to watch it, I shut it off, OK? That's 'Dad-14.'" Ironically, Mr. King is working on a TV version of The Shining, a novel about a father going berserk, a work that promises to be an obvious candidate for a Dad-14.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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