Rating the Ratings
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(SCENE FROM ROSEANNE)
JACKIE: Last night, you and Dan? How was it?
JACKIE: Oh, come on, Roseanne. It’s been a long time for you guys. Was it wild and intense? Was it like the first time?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: By the end of next month programs like “Roseanne” will have a rating displayed at the beginning of the show in the upper lefthand corner of the television screen. The new guidelines announced today will be sixth-tier, aged-based rating system. All programs, with the exception of news and sports, will be rated using the following categories:
A TV-Y rating contains material suitable for children of all ages.
TV-Y7 contains material suitable for children age 7 and older.
TV-G is for all audiences with little or no violence and little or no sexual situations.
For TV-PG, parental guidance is suggested. The program may contain limited violence and some suggestive sexual situations.
TV-14 material may be inappropriate for children under 14. The program could have strong language and sexual content.
A program rated TV-M is designed to be viewed by adults and, therefore, may be unsuitable for children under 17. The program could contain graphic violence and explicit sexual content.
Producers, broadcast networks, and cable channels will rate their own programs, but in all cases a local television station can override a show’s original rating and give it another. Eventually, the new system will work with a V chip to be installed in new TV sets in 1998. Using a remote control device people will be able to block shows or categories of shows based on their ratings. Industry executives said they expect the most violent and sexually explicit programming will continue to air after 10 PM. The new rating systems will be listed in newspapers and TV guides.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now for some different perspectives on the TV rating system, we have Dick Wolf, a television producer. His current programs are “Law and Order” and “New York Undercover.” Kathryne Montgomery is the president of the Center for Media Education, a children’s media advocacy group. Dr. Margie Hogan is a pediatrician. She chairs the Committee on Communications for the American Academy of Pediatrics. And Kay Koplovitz is CEO of USA Networks, a nationally distributed cable network. She was a member of the industry committee that developed the new rating system.
Thank you all for joining us. And starting with you, Ms. Koplovitz, why this system?
KAY KOPLOVITZ, USA Networks: (New York City) Well, there are a number of items that we found were going to be necessary in order to have a system that people could understand and use. First of all, it must be a simple-to-understand system. It helps if it’s familiar, and it has to work in the marketplace. And we looked at a number of different ways of doing rating systems, and we think that this one will meet the criteria best because it is familiar to people. It is similar to the MPAA rating system for movies which is widely accepted throughout the country. It is–we think–simple to understand. It does have both content and age information for parents, and we think it’ll work.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, briefly, what are you trying to achieve? What will work mean? What will it being able to work mean?
KAY KOPLOVITZ: It means that parents–the system is for parents, to give them guidance in choosing programming for their children to view. We think it’ll work in the marketplace. A very complicated system will only raise a lot more questions. At least, that’s what we have found in research so far. And we think that in order for it to be practical, don’t forget, we have to rate over 2,000 hours of programming a day in this industry. It’s quite different than the movie industry that rates two movies a day.
This is 2,000 hours of programming a day that has to be rated for the audience and has to be put into the system not only on the air, but this is going to be in print information, it’s going to be in the listings and TV Guide, and other publications that list television listings. It is really quite a comprehensive program, and, therefore, we think it has to be one that is easily understood. In this case, this one, much of it is familiar already to the audience.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay.
KAY KOPLOVITZ: And so we think it’ll meet those criteria.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. Ms. Montgomery, what do you think of it?
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY, Center for Media Education: We’re really very disappointed with this system because it really is not appropriate for television. The categories are based on age, and they’re really quite vague. They don’t tell parents the content of an individual program.
You can’t tell as a parent why a program received a particular rating. And the categories are so broad that very easily an entire evening of prime time programming could get a rating of PG. Parents will then, if they were concerned about possible troublesome content, may have to block out the entire evening.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So it doesn’t satisfy any of the things that you just heard Ms. Koplovitz outline?
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: This system is really no more simple than the kind of system we’re talking about, which is a content-based system.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We’ll get to that in a little bit, but let me just pursue this with Mr. Wolf. How do you respond to the new system we’ve just heard outlined?
DICK WOLF, Producer, “Law and Order”: Well, first of all, the problem with any kind of content-based system is that it’s completely subjective and unworkable.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we’re not talking about the content-based system now. We’re talking about the new system that was introduced today.
DICK WOLF: I understand, and I have been a very vocal advocate of no rating system. This is a system–the television business and the industry has been around for 50 years. Advertisers view every show that they go into. There are a standards and practices department at every network that rate the programs essentially in terms of what is going to be allowed, and this is a problem that I am a parent of three young children; I believe that parents should recognize the fact that they have to be parents and use parental guidance in the home, and watch what their children are watching.
Television is not an electronic baby sitter. And the idea that a system can be devised that will give parents information on a specific program in a way that they can adequately judge it I think is specious. I think that parents have a responsibility. That’s why it’s called PG, parental guidance. Watch the program, yourself. Do not leave it up to any third parties.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. And so you don’t think this system is necessary. You don’t think it’ll work?
DICK WOLF: Well, no. I think that this system is the only possible system that “can” work. The MPAA system has been in place for 28 years. Parents know what those basic guidelines are, and there is a definition for each age group category telling you basically how much sex or violence is going to be in that category. If you are concerned as a parent, watch the program. Don’t leave it up to somebody else.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.
DICK WOLF: And that is the basis of this system.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Hogan, as a pediatrician, you’ve been hearing this discussion, where do you come down?
DR. MARGIE HOGAN, American Academy of Pediatrics: The pediatricians represented by the American Academy of pediatrics have been interested in the effects of the media on children for years and years. And we are very, very concerned about the new proposed system and feel strongly that it is not meeting the needs of parents and families in this country. We strongly advocated a content-based system.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. I want to get to that.
DR. MARGIE HOGAN: Believing that parents–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. Excuse me. I want to get to that system in a minute, but I just want …You are particularly concerned, I believe, about the violence aspect of this, that it doesn’t deal with that sufficiently?
DR. MARGIE HOGAN: Traditionally, we’ve done a lot of research and produced a lot of materials about the effect of violence on children and adolescents, but the effect of media goes far beyond that. We’re only beginning to understand how sexual portrayals in the media can have an effect on young people. So violence certainly, sexuality, disrespect, character traits, all of these things we know have an impact on our young people.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And this system doesn’t address that?
DR. MARGIE HOGAN: That is absolutely correct. Parents need a more descriptive, a content-based advisory, as it were, to make good choices for their children.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Ms. Koplovitz, you’ve heard criticisms of your system. How do you respond, that it’s just not appropriate, it’s too vague, and that it doesn’t deal enough with content to give parents what they need to make good choices?
KAY KOPLOVITZ: Well, first of all, it isn’t vague. It’s not vague. The language on where the age categories are pegged in this system is not vague. It has gradations of definition which are easy to understand relating to violence, sex, or any other language that might be offensive and in what degree for each of these categories. So it isn’t vague at all. It does have content information in it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For example–
KAY KOPLOVITZ: Secondly–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Give me an example of the content.
KAY KOPLOVITZ: Well, in PG, for example, or General Audiences, it’ll say this material is appropriate for all audiences. In PG, it’ll say that the program may contain some references to sexual or light violence. It’ll have a description. It is a slight gradation of any of those categories that would give it that grade. If you go to PG-14, there will be a heavier emphasis on the type of violence or sexual behavior or reference or language. And if you go to TV-M, it will have very explicit, strong language that defines what is in that category.
So what I would urge people to do, before being too critical of this system, is to give this system a chance in the marketplace to work. There are studies that we have done that show that 90 percent of the adults surveyed, parents surveyed, approved of this system. So there is not vast disapproval of this system in the marketplace today.
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: Well, I want to disagree with that. There have been two major polls that have shown parents prefer a content system. I’ll be happy to talk about that. And when the polls that Ms. Koplovitz is talking about really, as parents, do you want a rating system, and they’re desperate for information. Let me tell you a couple of problems with this system. One is–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what about the one she just mentioned? Because she described quite a bit of–
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It sounded like content.
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: All right. Here’s the thing. Here’s the situation. These categories are broadly defined so that they may contain certain elements, but they don’t tell you whether an individual program contains that element. So if you compare it to food labeling, it would be as if you were buying a product and said this product category might contain MSG, might contain fat, it might contain some other harmful product, but you have no way of knowing whether this particular product does contain some harmful element.
And we’re particularly concerned about television violence. There have been decades of research that show that TV violence has a harmful effect on children. This is a public health issue. Parents have a right to know whether violence is in the programming.
Another problem with it is–and another problem in comparing it to the movie system is that in the movie system, you have a single entity, a single body of parents that evaluate all the movies. Here, you are asking individual producers to make decisions that are really more appropriate for child development specialists about what age group should or should not see a program.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you’re a producer, Mr. Hogan. How do you respond to that? I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf, how do you respond to that?
DICK WOLF: Well, I respond by saying that one man’s “Violence 4″ under the Canadian system is another parent’s “suitable action sequence.” And the Canadian system, which had a sliding scale for sex and violence was absolutely rejected by parents in Canada. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Now, some of these polls that we’ve heard about, like the PTA Poll, where they claim that 98 percent of the respondents responded that they wanted more content, what they failed to tell you is that they sent out thousands and thousands of questionnaires, and I believe they had 400 returned and 98 percent of those were from mothers, not fathers. And frankly, I feel that fathers should be heard in this area too. But we can come up with statistics until the cows come home.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Dr. Hogan, let me just ask you briefly, tell us about your content-based system and why it would be better than what we’ve been hearing about.
DR. MARGIE HOGAN: The content-based system is much more respectful to parents and children. Not every 7-year-old child is like the next 7-year-old child, nor 14-year-old child like the next one.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But what is it exactly? I’m sorry. What is the system exactly?
DR. MARGIE HOGAN: The American Academy of Pediatrics does not have a system.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: No. I mean, the content-based system that you’re advocating, what does it do?
DR. MARGIE HOGAN: The content-based system that we would advocate would be one that has description of the contents of violence, sex, or foul language. Let me give an example.
There’s a system that has been put forth by RSAC, the Recreational Software Advisory Council, which rates computer software and the Internet. This, interestingly, is also rated by the producers of these materials, but there is an appeal process, there’s a very strict set of guidelines for the rating. And the beauty of this system is its simplicity.
There’s a little thermometer gage that for each category–violence, sex, or language–rates the level at one through four, and then allows a parent to make an intelligent and caring decision for his or her own child. It’s a very simple system. None of us what to get bogged down in detail like the Canadian system it appears has but I think there is a way to make a simple–
DICK WOLF: It’s the same system.
DR. MARGIE HOGAN: Pardon me?
DICK WOLF: Excuse me. It’s the same system. You’re describing exactly the Canadian system which was an unmitigated disaster. The parents rejected it. It was too complicated, and, again, it’s completely subjective.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Wait a minute. Ms. Montgomery wants to weigh in here.
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: That is not true. There has been misinformation about the Canadian system. The Canadian system is still in development, in no way has the content system been rejected–
DICK WOLF: That’s not true.
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: In the tests that have been done there–
DICK WOLF: That’s not true.
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: –it is shown that parents “do” support it.
DICK WOLF: Ms. Montgomery, that is simply not true, and you know it’s not true.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We can’t settle this one, but this system has been given a year in which at the end of a year, it’s going to be re-examined. What would be the harm in trying it for a year, Ms. Montgomery?
KAY KOPLOVITZ: That’s exactly what I’m advocating that we do, and that’s what the industry advocates. We have the opportunity to put this system in the marketplace. It will be in effect in January. It will be shown on the screens in front of each program, at the top of each program for 15 seconds. It will be displayed in newspaper advertising, in all other types of guides.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.
KAY KOPLOVITZ: People will have a chance to use this system maybe two years before there is really a V chip available in television sets, so we have time to work with that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let me just get a brief response from Ms. Montgomery. Is anything terrible going to happen in that year that you couldn’t give it a shot?
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: Here’s what we’re concerned about. If there’s going to be a test period, that test period should also give parents the opportunity to try out a content-based system, and that is not on the table at all. What the industry really wants to do here is to keep the system in place and to hope that we can just lock it into place and not consider any other system.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right.
KATHRYNE MONTGOMERY: And we continue to–we’re going to continue pushing for a system that’s better for parents.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, we’ll just watch it as it progresses. Thank you all for joining us.