Content Control: The Race for a TV Ratings System Rages On

The common ground for advocates of a television rating system is splitting apart. While many agree that parents need some standard to govern what their children watch, crafting the solution splinters people into opposing camps. Some say what children watch should be determined by their age, while others argue maturity levels are not determined by age alone, and are pressing for a more detailed scale."We need a reasonable ratings system that everyone can understand," said Ray Oakes, assistant Professor of Mass Communications at Franklin Pierce College who has watched this debate closely. "Parents should have a workable system but there are a number of agendas -- hidden and otherwise -- in the [currently proposed] ratings systems."The two suggested coding systems include one that would rate programs by "appropriate" age group, and one that would rate programs by content --designating the level of sex, violence, and language. The chosen system will be installed in the v-chip, a mechanism installed in new televisions that will enable parents to block the labeled programs of their choice. The Clinton administration and Congress included the v-chip requirement as part of the larger Telecommunications Act passed this year.Jack Valenti, chairman of the Television Industry Ratings Implementation Group,(TIRIG) -- a self-titled group formed as a collaboration of heads of the motion picture, broadcasting and national cable television industries -- proposed the age based scale, which grants television symbols similar to the movie ratings. Their scales are TV-G (general audiences), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (parents strongly cautioned) and TV-M (mature audiences only). Critics charge this system fails to consider both the different rates of development for children and adolescents and individual codes of morality in households, he stands firmly behind his plan. Although Valenti's office declined to comment for this story, the San Francisco Chronicle last week quoted him as saying, "We will not use any other TV ratings guidelines except the ones that we are going to announce...," an indication that TIRIG refuses to look at alternatives to its plan.Many organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Media Watch (RMMW) and the Center for Media Education (CME), are more than skeptical of TIRIG's plan. Such groups charge that age based system is ineffective. It takes away the parent's power to decide at what age their children are able to handle certain content and "violence, sex and language concerns are all intermingled into a single age-based judgment," asserted CME, a media advocacy group that focuses on children's issues. TIRIG's system is purposely ineffective, charged Jeff Chester, CME's executive director. He said the group is too concerned with monetary issues to create a workable rating scale. For instance, the industry receives $30 billion in advertising a year and if they "truly" proposed a rating program, certain controversial programs would risk loosing money because advertisers would be unwilling to back them, said Chester. "The [television] industry doesn't want to have an effective rating system because they don't want to effect their bottom line," he said. Paul Klite, executive director of RMMW, an activist group trying to improve the quality of television, agreed. "[Valenti] wants to protect the industry's income," he said. "He is afraid advertisers will pull out." And advertisers will back away if a show is given the "scarlet letter" of descriptive ratings, said Chuck Ross, media editor for Advertising Age magazine. "From the point of view of advertising, they'd like the ratings to say as little as possible because they're worried that if a show is ostracized for sex or violence that they'll be targeted by special interest groups," he said. "For advertisers, less is more."CME is not content to accept what they believe is a watered down proposal for ratings controlled by money. In response to TIRIG's proposal, CME is attempting to create awareness for its own ratings system; a system where V, S and L symbolize violence, sex, or strong language together with short descriptions of controversial content, similar to what many cable stations use now. This system is favored by 80 percent of parents polled in a national Parent Teacher Association (PTA) survey, and according to CME, it "accepts that there are different standards of suitability for children with different characteristics, backgrounds and experiences." Children's advocacy group Children Now also supports CME, and in a recent survey of leading experts on children and television, Children Now found that 17 of 18 interviewed agree that description of content is pertinent to a ratings system. Another factor that could make content-based ratings more attractive is the effect it has on viewers. "Research shows that age-based ratings increases the desirability of the show, " said Bobbie Eisenstock, Ph.D, media consultant and adjunct faculty at California State University Northridge. "Younger kids want to watch shows for older kids, so the [age-based] ratings will have a backfiring effect."Both Eisenstock and Chester pointed out that television has a very profound effect on young viewers -- viewers, who by the age of 18 have watched 22,00 hours of TV by age 18, according to Children Now. "Decades of research shows that violence especially effects children in three ways," said Chester. "It desensitizes them, encourages repetitive/copycat behavior, and it instills fear." Therefore, Eisenstock and Chester emphasized the need for a blocking system that will help parents when they want to prevent their children from seeing graphic images instead of offering lip service to the public that affects little change.

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