The Ratings Game
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The White House meeting with the telecommunications chieftains came after several years of pressure from parents and politicians. Last Spring, Senate Majority Leader and Presidential hopeful Robert Dole specifically targeted Time-Warner.
SEN. ROBERT DOLE, Majority Leader: Must you debase our nation and threaten our children for the sake of corporate profits? The corporate executives who dismiss criticism should not misunderstand. I’m not objecting to some little tiny group of zealots or an ideological fringe. From inner city mothers to suburban mothers to families in rural America, parents, parents are afraid and parents are growing angry.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The drum beat of criticism continued from across the political spectrum. Tell all talk TV was the target for a group headed by moderate Democrat Joseph Lieberman and conservative Republican Bill Bennett.
JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: No to this cultural rot, no to the exploitation of personal tragedies and embarrassments, no to the peddling of perversion to 8 million children watching talk TV every day.
WILLIAM BENNETT: Does anybody doubt that these shows degrade the people who are on them, that these shows degrade human personality? Do the sponsors think not? If not, why not?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In January, in his State of the Union, President Clinton upped the ante.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: To the media, I say you should create movies and CD’s and television shows you’d want your own children and grandchildren to enjoy. (applause) I call on Congress to pass the requirement for a V-chip in TV sets so that parents can screen out programs they believe are inappropriate for their children.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: President Clinton got what he wanted. Earlier this month, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act which requires TV manufacturers to begin installing the V-chip, with the V standing for violence. The act also urges the creation of a rating system and today, President Clinton praised the industry executives for having voluntarily come up with one.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: As a result of our discussions, the media and the entertainment industry has agreed to a voluntary system of ratings for television programs. These rating will be put in place by the end of this year or the beginning of next year to help parents decide what programs they want their children to watch.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A worse alternative from the industry’s point of view would have been having a government-appointed group do the ratings.
TED TURNER: When we looked at how the vote went, over 95 percent of our members of Congress voted for this V-chip bill. I mean, it was an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and we got the message, and we really don’t really have any choice anyway. We are either going to do it, or it’s going to be done for us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It won’t be easy to come up with a system that can cover over 600,000 hours a year of programming, and already critics say the current plan doesn’t go far enough.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining us to explain this historic agreement are Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Kay Koplovitz, founder and CEO of USA Network, a national cable network. Thank you both for being with us. Mr. Valenti, what does the agreement–what is the agreement?
JACK VALENTI, Motion Picture Association of America: Well, first, it’s a historic agreement, as you said. It’s the first time that all of the disparate elements of the world of television networks, movie studios, cable, PBS, creative guilt, all got together in common cause. Now, unlike what was said earlier, the industry did not have to do this. The law does not require us to do it. The law says there will be a V-chip, but it does not require and cannot require–
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Although, didn’t the law say that if the industry doesn’t do it, that a government-appointed body would within a year?
MR. VALENTI: It said the FCC would then appoint a commission but there are many First Amendment lawyers in this country who believe that that is unconstitutional. However, I am and others believe that it was in the long range interest of the parents of this country that we come together in a voluntary–and I stress voluntary–agreement to rate TV programs and to encode them so that the so-called V-chip or electronic device will allow parents a choice or not to blank out certain programs that their very children they might deem to be unsuitable.
This is what we did 27 years ago with movie ratings which have persistently won high approval from parents because we give additional information to parents, so that parents and not a government or a Congress or anybody else can make choices for the parents of this country, and we’re doing this, and I think it’s a wonderful thing we’re doing because it’s right to do but not because we were required to do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I know that much has to be worked out but do you think it will end up, the system will look a little like the movie rating systems, with the G, the PG, and, and NC-17 and that kind of thing, no kids under 17, and–
MR. VALENTI: The answer is I don’t know. It’s taken all of our strength and energy and passion and commitment to bring ourselves together under a common tent, under a common canopy to do this work, and I applaud people like Kay Koplovitz and others in the cable industry, networks, and everybody else who came together on this. We’ve got a lot of work to do to sort out the difficult, tormenting, even terrorizing questions that have to be asked and have to be solved before we can finally put this into operation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We’ll get into some of those questions in a minute. Ms. Koplovitz, why did this happen now? For years, the industry has not wanted to do something like this, has said that it was against free speech.
KAY KOPLOVITZ, USA Network: I think you have the confluence of a number of factors right now, and not the least of which is the fact that there is a law that has been passed and part of the Teleco Bill does require the V-chip, does not require us to do this rating system, but I do think there is a resonance in our communities and across the country for parents who want to have some guidance, and I think that we in the industry agree that information is important for parents to have. I think we have a different situation today than we had 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, we had three broadcast networks, a few stations in a community.
Today, 70 percent of the homes of the country see multiple stations, maybe as 70 different stations, and networks coming into their home, and I think that the industry is beginning to realize that there is a plethora of programming, and that some guidance in giving information would be helpful to parents. And I think that’s the resonance we hear and what we are responding to in this industry.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Valenti, some critics have said that this will just open the way to more violence and sex in programming because a broadcaster can label it, but there it is. They can do as much as they want of it, as long as it’s labeled. Do you think that’s true?
MR. VALENTI: Well, the answer is I liken this to the television equivalent of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Like them, we don’t know what’s on the other side of the mountain. There are a lot of things we don’t know. What I do believe and Kay and others share with me is that parents ought to have more information to help them monitor and supervise the TV viewing of their young children.
Whether this is, as we say, the law of unintended consequences will take over, I don’t know. All I know is that we’re going to try to do this, to do it right, to do it with integrity, and with honorable purpose, and that is our aim, and this is what we’re going to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are the risks in this? For example, I was thinking about this. Researchers from four universities recently announced the results of a study on television violence. I think the cable industry helped pay for the study.
MS. KOPLOVITZ: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And it showed that in–the premium cable channels had violence in 85 percent of their programming. What are the risks to those networks, to those programs, or those companies? An advertiser might say, I’m just not going to advertise if you have to label it some kind of a label not suitable for children.
MS. KOPLOVITZ: Let me clarify something for you. They didn’t–the study did not say that the violence occurs in 85 percent of the programming or 57 percent of the programming on other channels, or whatever. It was of those programs that were viewed by the researchers. They did not view all programming. They viewed programs chosen at random. So they were talking about the programs that they viewed. It was not a complete survey of all programs. Let me make that clear, first of all. Secondly, there are–
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But it is risky, isn’t it?
MS. KOPLOVITZ: There are definitely risks. I mean, as far as an industry that is supported largely by advertising, and for those of us on the cable side to some degree by subscription fees, there is a big risk, and for broadcasters even a larger risk that advertisers will be intimidated from advertising and programming that they feel is a really worthwhile thing.
Not all programming is created for children. You take a series like NYPD Blue, which has been highly acclaimed for its creative content, yet, some people would find some of the language or some of the scenes objectionable, and certainly perhaps objectionable to children. That doesn’t mean that advertisers shouldn’t be in that show, because very important social issues and challenges that we live every day in our lives are seen on that show.
It’s extremely worthy of being on the air, yet, it could carry a rating that would intimidate some advertisers from being in it. And I think these are the types of issues that we’ve got to walk through. We should embrace comments from the advertising community as to what their concerns are. We should try to take them into consideration in forming our rating system. I think this would be appropriate.
So yes, we’re risking–we have financial risks, we have–I think we have the risk of being overly-criticized for no matter what we do. It’s a dead certainty that everybody’s not going to be pleased with what we come up with. I mean, that’s a certainty. We know that no matter what we do we will be roundly criticized by the left or the right or self-appointed people who feel that they should be the purveyors of our morals in this society, and it’s a heavy burden that we bear, I think, but we’re willing to take it up voluntarily.
It is a huge challenge to us. I hope people don’t underestimate or over-anticipate what the results will be, because this will not necessarily change violence in our society. This is just one aspect of it, television.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, and I would imagine one of the main topics of discussion or worries would be that everything will become too bland.
MR. VALENTI: Well, I don’t believe that we can make all television programs at the intellectual level of a seven-year-old. What we’re trying to do is to sort out through our ratings what is in some of these programs so parents can make judgments about young children. We’re talking about six, seven, eight, nine, ten-year-old children, and those are the ones that need to be protected, and that’s the information that parents should have, and that’s what we’re going to do.
But I do believe that in the long run, we’re going to be criticized heavily, as Kay says, but in spite of that, we’re going to continue on and to make this project work. I think it can be done, and it ought to be done.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You know, some, some journalists have written that what you really needed to do was to get this out of the way so that you all could deal with a much more difficult issue or at least an equally difficult issue coming up, which is the question of whether the digital parts of the airwaves will be given away or auctioned off, as Sen. Dole and others have called for.
MR. VALENTI: As far as I’m concerned, though, that’s, that’s not–that’s something not on my turf. And I think some of the broadcasters are dealing with that. What we were trying to do is to try to bring together all elements of this industry that previously were unallied with each other and have them joined in this cause of trying to give more information to parents so the parents can monitor their children’s TV viewing, but there will be tomorrow and the day after people saying that’s not enough, because some of these people actually want certain shows off the air because they don’t like those shows.
Every time that I encounter someone who believes that they are the repository of all wisdom, I always want to utter that old Texas prayer that says, Dear Lord, let me seek the truth but spare me the company of those who have found it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both for being with us.