Rating Prime Time

December 12, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: A telecommunications law enacted earlier this year said TV sets in the future must include a so-called V-chip. The V-chip would enable parents to block out programs they consider too violent or other inappropriate for their children. Shortly afterwards, TV executives pledged in a meeting with President Clinton that they would come up with a ratings system to work with the new technology.

The industry group charged with designing the ratings system is just days away from releasing it, but already, published reports of their deliberations have prompted heavy criticism from many quarters, including Congress.

Tonight we hear from two men deeply involved in the controversy: Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who heads the industry group that’s been designing the rating system, and Democratic Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a leading sponsor of the original V-chip bill. First, Jack Valenti. Welcome, Mr. Valenti.

JACK VALENTI, Motion Picture Association of America: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us the outlines of the rating system you’ve designed.

JACK VALENTI: The outline of this rating system are exactly as we said on February 29, when the whole television industry met with President Clinton and with Vice President Gore, conferred with Democratic and Republican leaders and members of both the House and Senate.

We made five commitments, and we are ready next week to redeem each of those promises. We’re going to come up with a television parental guidelines which are simple to use, easy to understand, and handy to find.

They will be a mingling of age base and content base, and they will enable parents for the first time to be able to better monitor and supervise the TV watching of their young children. We are aiming this particularly at parents with children under 14, but for the first time, we’re going to pay special attention, as child experts have urged us to, to very young children, age 2 to 6.

And so we’re going to have two categories that will certify to parents programs aimed solely at children. And there will be one category will say from two to six we think that parents would not be offended if their young children watched it. The second category will say this is not designed for children under seven years old, and parents are cautioned to be sure they understand this and act accordingly, as they see fit.

All other programs will be rated in four categories: a TVG, which says we believe that all ages would be able to watch this, there’s nothing in it we think would offend anybody. And then there’s PG, TVPG, which says parents should be very careful; some material in this category might not be suitable for young children. And we will use words like that there will be in this program infrequent coarse language, limited violence, some suggested dialogue and situations.

These are content-based. And then we escalate to the next level of category which will be TV 14. And we’ll say this–these types of programs contain sophisticated themes, sexual content, strong language, and more intense violent, again ratcheting up the category so that parents can know this is a little bit more than others. And then finally TVM, where we say mature themes, profane language, graphic violence, and explicit sexual content.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you know that some of the critics say that they want even more information. And they say there’s some parents, for instance, who don’t object to their child seeing something with a little profane language, but they don’t want gratuitous violence. Would your system let parents make those kinds of distinctions?

JACK VALENTI: Are you telling me that there are parents out there with six, seven, and eight-year-old children, that they don’t mind them seeing violence but they don’t want sex or visa versa? I can’t believe that. I think we’re talking about young children, very impressionable.

So we’re telling parents. If you say that a parent says I like my six, seven, or eight-year-old to see as much sex as they like, but I don’t want them to see violence, as a parent of three children, I can’t believe that any parent out there believes that. We’re telling parents in an escalating range of severity we warn you in advance, Mr. and Mrs. Parent, we’re not smart enough to tell parents what to do. I don’t think any congressman or senator is or the President.

Each parent must make his or her own decision about what they want to do. But it must be simple. If it’s cumbersome, if you load it down with all sorts of permutations, you’re going to dissuade parents from using it. We want parents to use this.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the reason that you aren’t going for a more complicated system, or a system that gives even more information?

JACK VALENTI: How much more information would you have and where would you communicate it? The Publishers Association said if you come up with a complicated system, we can’t publish it. We don’t have room in our TV Guides. TV Guide is going to have to add eight pages to its TV Guide to accommodate a very simple system at a cost of several millions of dollars.

But there’s no sense in having a cumbersome system out there. It won’t be disseminated to the extent we would like, and parents won’t use it.

MARGARET WARNER: And just to explain, it will also be, though, imbedded in the programming, itself, so parents, for instance, can just set their television to block out anything over TV 14.

JACK VALENTI: Correct. Now, keep in mind for the next year, year and a half, there will be no V-chips out there. The law says after January of 1998, all sets must have it. So for the next year or so, we will not have any V-chips. But what we “will” have is the ability of parents to be able to guide their children’s habits.

Now we’re going to encode our broadcast signal, so that when a V-chip is there, it will marry up that data stream that’s in the television set. And then with a parent with a little remote control, it can knock out three categories and only allow one to come in.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Does all this criticism, though, from members of Congress and from a lot of these children’s advocacy groups, does this worry you?

JACK VALENTI: It annoys me because none of these people who are criticizing us have ever seen the system. We haven’t unveiled it yet. It’s been leaked, parts of it, but nobody has seen the system in its entirety. Nobody has seen how it’s going to work, how it’s going to function, nobody’s going to see the honorable purpose that’s inserted in this. There must be integrity.

MARGARET WARNER: But can the critics keep you from enacting this?

JACK VALENTI: Absolutely not. I think you’ll hear from Congressman Markey, who was one of the authors of the telecommunications bill, he will tell you there is absolutely no compulsion of any kind in that bill. We cannot be forced to do anything that the government or the Federal Communications Commission would inflict on us.

What we are doing is voluntary. Keep in mind, Margaret, we don’t have to do this. There’s no way that we can be compelled by the Congress. But I believe it is an obligation we have to parents to try to give them some more information finally. We will be the only country in the world that is giving this kind of advanced cautionary warnings to parents.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Mr. Valenti, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much.

JACK VALENTI: Oh, can’t we go on?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, a different perspective from Congressman Markey. Congressman Markey, your reaction to this, the design of the system.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY, (D) Massachusetts: Well, at one level, in fact, the Hollywood and broadcasting community is providing more information. The debate, however, is over how useful that information will be for parents.

So, for example, there are categories which have been constructed, but into, for example, one category, a Seinfeld and Terminator III could be placed, so a parent that’s more concerned about violence but not Seinfeld, let’s say, has to block out Seinfeld and all programming like that as well, which they’ve already negotiated out with their child, and something which is appropriate for them.

So all we’re asking for from the Hollywood and broadcasting community is since they’ve already gone through the programming to determine whether it’s offensive or not, why don’t they pass on whether it’s the violence or the sex, or the foul language, and break it out into different categories, so that at various ages the parents can determine just that one thing that may be of greatest concern to them, for “their” child, that they may want to block out of their home.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, now you heard Mr. Valenti. He said he doesn’t find that credible. He thinks parents are equally concerned about all three categories, and furthermore, as I’m sure you heard him say, it’s just way too complicated to include all of that information.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, let me say the parents of small children ten years from now are students in high school and college right now who are playing on the Internet with their computer for two and three hours a day.

So it will be a relatively simple thing for them if a computer chip built into a TV set allows them to program for their small children ten years from now as to whether it’s sex or violence or language at a particular age, and it will take that student of today ten years from now thirty seconds to be able to program the TV set.

And so it really isn’t that complicated. The information is already there, and all we’re asking is for the mass media to pass this programming information along to parents so that they can deal with this four-alarm fire of teen-age pregnancy and crime amongst the teen-ager population, the rising drug rate, and allow for the parents to decide for themselves which type of programming they want their kids to see.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Congressman, if you don’t think that the reasons Mr. Valenti gave are really credible, then why do you think the industry doesn’t want to give all of this information that you think is important to have?

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, I think that when they construct categories like TVPG that will be so broad that ultimately parents will take TVPG to mean “Too Vague, Parents Give Up.” And it won’t be as usable as they want. In addition, they don’t want to put a V for violence, for example, on any program. They believe it’ll be the scarlet letter.

So, instead, they like to keep the whole issue in some form of terminological inexactitude. The parent won’t know exactly what it is that they’ve identified, whether it’s sex or violence or language, and as a result make it very difficult for a parent who’s overwhelmed with too many responsibilities anyway to go through the entire TV Guide there holding a spot in the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the first parent that’s read every item in a 200-page TV Guide.

So that’s, I think, they don’t want advertisers to feel that they shouldn’t attach their product to a program and lose money. I mean, the bottom line here is it’s not a debate over the First Amendment; it’s a debate over the profits of the network, networks and the Hollywood community.

MARGARET WARNER: So where do you go from here? You heard Mr. Valenti say, after all, this legislation made it entirely involuntary on the part of the industry to come up with this system.

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, I think what we are now doing is reaching the stage where pediatricians and primary schoolteachers and parents check into the debate. Now, they have something that they can analyze, and I think what we’re hearing is that parents want the additional information. They know that it’s possible, they know that it’s available.

They want to control the information, themselves, and they don’t want Big Brother in Hollywood deciding what’s good for their kids. They want to be able to do it in their own living room. And I think as this debate plays out, that it’s going to be very healthy for our country, because we’ll be able to properly center the role that television plays in our society.

MARGARET WARNER: So you are holding out hope, you’re saying then, that pressure from parents and advocates and people like yourselves will still cause Mr. Valenti’s group to refine this further?

REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, I hope that that’s really the ultimate result of the entire debate. I consider now this to have been a good faith effort by the Hollywood community and putting something out on the table, but I would hope that they wouldn’t allow parents and teachers and physicians and others to now comment upon whether or not it does the job because I think that they can do better.

You know, we’ve left the era of “Leave it to Beaver,” and we’ve entered the era of Beavis and Butthead. It’s no longer three channels; it’s a hundred channels. Parents need all the help they can get.

And right now, you know, President Roosevelt used to say that if a man was out at sea ten feet and you threw him a five-foot rope, you wouldn’t do him any good. And here, that’s what they’re doing with this system. Yeah, they’re throwing five feet of rope, but the parents are drowning ten feet offshore, and with the additional information they can protect their own kids in their own living rooms.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, Congressman. We’re out of time, but thank you very much.