A Low Rating for the Rating System
by L. Brent Bozell III
Sixty-two percent of the public, says a poll taken recently
by U.S. News & World Report, and 80 percent of PTA members surveyed even
more recently believe that a content-specific ratings system for television is
a good idea. So do liberals like Sen. Kent Conrad, Rep. Ed Markey, and Norman
Lear. And so do many conservatives, among them yours truly.
But television executives, who so often defend their
shenanigans by stating their business is to give the public what it wants,
think that in this case the customer is wrong. After months of discussion the
industry has announced the new TV ratings formula. It is similar, although not
identical, to the age-based system (G, PG, PG-13, and so on) the Motion
Picture Association of America devised for the movies. This approach does
nothing to address public consternation over the vulgarities and obscenities
on television. Moreover, it not only does next to nothing to help parents make
responsible choices for their children; it may actually make matters even more
Here's how. This year, Fox thumbed its nose at the
overwhelming majority of parents outraged by gratuitous violence on television
by introducing the gory "Millennium." This being one of ninety-six
different series on broadcast television alone, the average parent is
unfamiliar with the show's content. Applying the new system,
"Millennium" will probably receive what will be called a TV-14
rating. So what does Mom do when fourteen-year-old Johnny asks to watch the
show? The average mom will allow it, just as she probably will give permission
to thirteen-year-old Jenny and maybe even twelve-year-old Tommy. End of
Why is the industry resisting popular demand for a
content-specific rating system? Because it knows that a comprehensive analysis
might well chase away parents - and their children - by the millions.
What if there were a different rating system in effect, one
based on show content, not viewer age? (The Caucus For Producers, Writers, and
Directors, which boasts such members as Lear and Aaron Spelling, endorses such
a system.) Under such guidelines, if "Millennium" is rated V+ for
frequent, graphic violence, moms everywhere will keep their Johnnys, Jennys,
and Tommys from watching it -- and Fox can say goodbye to millions of viewers.
No one knows this better than the advertising industry.
Frederic Biddle of the Boston Globe points out that "ABC learned the hard
way after the...debut of 'NYPD Blue' that...a disclaimer can frighten
advertisers." (In the case of "NYPD Blue," the disclaimer,
which appears just before the episode begins, is specific, stating that the
show contains "adult language" and sometimes "partial
nudity.") Biddle continues: "Though advertisers now love ['NYPD
Blue'], networks simply don't want to endure [that sort of] trauma
Even though the official ratings system may not be
content-based, parents searching for guidance regarding what their children
should and shouldn't watch, and why, can now refer to the "1996-'97
Family Guide to Prime Time Television," published by the Parents
Television Council. The booklet rates nearly one hundred prime time series on
the six broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, and WB) for
family-friendliness, using a green/yellow/red traffic light system, and
provides two or three paragraphs of detail about each show, thoroughly
analyzing the objectionable - and sometimes commendable - themes contained
The "Family Guide" not only alerts parents to the
tasteless and inappropriate ("Cybill," "Melrose Place")
but also the wholesome and worthwhile ("Home Improvement,"
"Promised Land"). Often a series will offer mixed signals. The NBC
sitcom "Mr. Rhodes" extols the merits of good tea chers and adult
discipline, but it features language inappropriate for youngsters; therefore,
it receives a cautionary yellow light.
It's a sad commentary on things that the "Family
Guide" is especially valuable because there is so much garbage
on the airwaves. In a better world, such a publication wouldn't be necessary,
since TV programming would be, if not family-oriented, at least not
aggressively racy or shocking. Such a world, idealistic as it sounds, is not
unattainable. It existed on prime time just a generation ago.
Unfortunately, network executive suites have long been
populated by the likes of ABC's Bob Iger, who last February, after the White
House entertainment summit, told a Washington press conference that a ratings
system will not "cause us to change any scheduling attitudes at all. Nor
will it cause us to change our broadcast standards."
A sign that Iger may be backing off a little came later when
his network moved "Ellen" (red light in the "Family
Guide") from the 8 o'clock "family hour" to 9:30. Fine, but in
the 8 to 9 p.m. hour one can still find on Iger's network such raunch as
"Roseanne" (red), while during the same time slot on NBC, there's
"Friends" (red). CBS has "The Nanny" (red) and Fox has
"Married?With Children" (red). One down, many more to go.
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