TOPICS > Politics

To the Letter

July 10, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Last year’s telecommunications reform act said TV sets of the future must include a new technology called the V-chip to help parents block out programs they consider too violent or otherwise inappropriate for their children. TV executives pledged to come up with a ratings system to work with the new technology. Last December, after months of internal debate, the industry announced its new ratings code.

SPOKESPERSON: Look for these informative symbols in the preview scroll and on the top half of your screen, simple to use, easy-to-understand television ratings to help you make smart, informed program choices for your family

MARGARET WARNER: Modeled on the movie ratings system, the new television system assigned six age-based categories to TV shows:

TV-Y–suitable for all children
TV-7 for children seven and older
TV-G for general audiences
TV-PG, parental guidance suggested
TV-14 for children over 14 and
TV-M, unsuitable for children under 17.

Parents groups, and many members of Congress, immediately criticized the ratings as too vague. They urged a content-based system that would identify shows with violence, sex, or offensive language. In February, Motion Picture Association President Jack Valenti went to Capitol Hill to vigorously defend the age-based system and to oppose any changes to include information about content.

JACK VALENTI, Motion Picture Association: This system has been in the marketplace for a mere 56 days. So I leave you with one question: Should the entire career of a United States Senator be judged solely on his or her performance in their first 56 days in office?

MARGARET WARNER: But complaints from parents continued to mount at other congressional hearings like this one in Peoria in May.

KELLY FIDDES: You can’t have “Friends” on at 7 o’clock, rated PG, and the first comment is: “Has that girl slept with every man in every state in the country?” and have the theme of the whole show be sexual and say that that’s appropriate for kids under 14. It’s not appropriate. And V-chip–

MARGARET WARNER: Pressure on the industry grew further as members of Congress introduced various bills to ban violent programming until late at evening, or to deny licenses to local stations that didn’t impose content-based ratings. Today–after months of negotiations among the industry, Congress, educators and parents’ groups–Vice President Gore announced that virtually all broadcasters had agreed to modify the ratings system.

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: Today, America’s parents have won back their living rooms. I recently met with some parent groups, and I wasn’t surprised with what they told me. Age-based ratings were very helpful but were not enough. Parents needed to know more. They need to know about the television images their children will see, and they need to know about the language and the dialogue that their children will hear.

MARGARET WARNER: The new system will amplify the current age-based ratings with the addition of one or more of the following:

“V” for violence,
“S” for sexual material,
“L” for strong language,
“D” for suggestive dialogue, and
“FV” for fantasy violence.

In return, some members of Congress who’ve been active on this issue, like Democratic Congressman Ed Markey and Republican Senator John McCain, offered the industry a temporary moratorium on any new legislation aimed at TV ratings, program content, or scheduling.

But not all members signed the letters. Most major cable and broadcast networks have agreed to start posting the new ratings by October 1st. But NBC refused, saying it will stick with the old age-based system, with “program-specific advisories where appropriate.”

Three of the most powerful creative guilds in Hollywood also opposed the plan and have threatened to go to court to block it. The first new TV sets equipped with V-chips are expected to go on the market in the fall of 1998. But V-chip boxes for use with existing sets could be available much sooner.