KWAME HOLMAN: Spurred by last year's telecommunications reform law, the broadcast, cable, and motion picture industries introduced a new system to rate the content of TV movies and television shows.
The industry put its system in place last February. It created six age-based categories to be assigned to all programs, except news and sports: TV-Y--suitable for all children TV-Y7--suitable for children age seven and older TV-G--for general audiences, the program contains little or no violence or sexual situations TV-PG encourages parental guidance, since the program may contain limited violence and some sexually suggestive situations TV-14 appropriate only for children over 14 because of strong language and sexual content and TV-M for mature adults, unsuitable for children under 17 because of graphic violence and/or explicit sexual content. TV producers, networks, and movie makers rate their own programs, while local TV stations, but local stations may override a show's original rating and give it another.
The ratings eventually will work in conjunction with the so-called V-chip--an electronic device being installed in new television sets over the next two years that will allow parents to block out programs they feel are inappropriate for their children.
But the ratings system has been controversial since its birth, drawing criticism from parents' groups and scrutiny from Congress. On Monday, the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications held an unusual field hearing in Peoria, Illinois, to see how the television industry's new guidelines were playing in middle America. Republican and Democratic pollsters selected 300 families to participate. To qualify, they had to have a child under 18 living in the home and had to have viewed at least an hour of television a night in the week before the hearing. Chairman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana invited his subcommittee members and three representatives of the TV industry to listen to what parents had to say.
SPOKESMAN: This meeting of the field hearing of the Subcommittee of Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection will please come to order.
KWAME HOLMAN: The town meeting style hearing was moderated by former NBC Correspondent Sander Vanocer.
MODERATOR: I'm honored to be here. I can't imagine--excuse me--why I was selected, other than the fact I did live here during the war.
KWAME HOLMAN: Audience members were encouraged to ask questions.
PATTI STERLING: I don't normally watch TV more than an hour a week. I specifically did this because I wanted to see what my 15 year old son was watching. For me to watch "Seinfeld" and they talk about orgasms, I don't want my 15-year-old son knowing that--I am horrified at what I watched the last week on television. And I don't consider myself a conservative person, but I could not believe some of the things that I saw on television and the ratings that they were given.
LISA JOHNSON: I appreciate with what you are trying to do with the TV rating systems, I appreciate it very much. I do believe that a lot of the television shows are mis-rated. A lot of them should be mature audiences only. I'm a little nervous. But one thing that I do want to say is that I am ultimately responsible for the raising of a child. I do not like TV in general because it's a negative impact on my son, and I've chosen and I've decided within myself that if it's not appropriate for him, I will not watch it until the private industry changes.
KWAME HOLMAN: Industry representatives, including Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, defended the ratings system, but acknowledged it had some problems early on.
JACK VALENTI, Motion Picture Association of America: I think that a number of the shows that are on the air now are mis-rated. We have only been on the air about four months. And we are just getting the hang of this. It takes time; we have never done this before. This is brand new, and when you think about how you put a rating on, it's very subjective. As I told you, 2000 hours a day, we couldn't have a panel of parents doing that because logistically it's totally impossible.
KWAME HOLMAN: Eddie Fritts is president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
EDDIE FRITTS, National Association of Broadcasters: When the V-chip technically is in place and this parent doesn't want that programming in her home, certainly all she has to do is hit that one button, and the V-chip--you won't have to look in your TV Guide, you won't have to look--if you block out that type of programming, it will be blocked out all the way through the process.
KWAME HOLMAN: But most parents lining up at the microphones were disappointed, both with both the programming and the ratings that accompany it.
WOMAN: I sat and watched with my child an episode of Daffy Duck I thought was pretty safe. I watched Daffy Duck talk a bull down in his self-esteem, hand him a handgun, and convince him to commit suicide. The bull was this close when he realized what he was doing. Children can't even watch cartoons anymore. What are you going to do? Why have we let TV get so far?
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 that whole show be sexual and say that it is appropriate for kids under 14--it is not appropriate. And V-chip or not--
JACK VALENTI: One of the problems the people of Peoria are telling us, and one that I certainly can understand, is not so much being critical of the rating system itself but of the programs which the ratings system rates. Big difference. I am as utterly flabbergasted as you are by some of the programs that I see and some of the movies that I see. I wouldn't defend some of these movies if my life and job depended it, but we are not censors. Please understand that. We are not censors. We are trying only to rate what is on that screen.
KWAME HOLMAN: But there also were parents who praised the ratings system.
PARENT: I am sure I am in the minority here tonight, but I love the TV ratings system; I love TV. I'm not ashamed to say that we watch a lot of TV at our house. I think it provides another tool for me as a parent. It is not just me saying, no, you can't watch this. It's that, no, that has that rating and we are definitely not going to watch it.
ROBERT WEIBAL: What I might suggest to the panel is that you sell it from the perspective of what is it intended to do; it is not intended to clean up television programming. It is not intended to alter anything that is currently shown on TV. It is intended to be used as a tool so that I, as a parent, can evaluate what my children are watching.
KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the hearing the committee showed clips, including this one from the Fox network's new series "Millennium," showing a man burying a human body in a pile of leaves. The show was assigned a TV-14 rating. Eleven year old Katie Lambert said the rating doesn't reflect the content of the show.
KATIE LAMBERT: About the rating, it's PG-14. I think that's like too low of rating because that shows people killing people and hiding them in the leaves. I mean, that's not something like that a 14-year-old should be watching.
KWAME HOLMAN: That point was picked up by Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a longtime critic of the industry and its ratings system. .
ED MARKEY: Every single poll, 70, 80, 90 percent of parents want more content-based information. How much violence, how much sex, how bad is the language; I will decide for my children; I don't want the Hollywood executives to play the experts and to make the decisions for me. Let me make the decision in Peoria or any other community in the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: A Peoria parent agreed with Markey.
TONY DE CEANNE: You just put forth a very substandard product hoping to buy yourself more time to continue peddling the trash that is on TV today. And I don't see how you can put that forward with an honest face and say that you gave this your best shot, when Mr. Markey has right before you a perfect solution to your problems. It tells the content. It's still broad based and vague, and it would be very easy to implement, and yet, you're still hiding behind this umbrella of, well, we're only four months into our infancy.
SPOKESMAN: Mr. Valenti, recognizing the people in this city never speak their mind, would you answer this question.
JACK VALENTI: I have no comment.
KWAME HOLMAN: Three hours of discussion yielded some suggestions from the Peoria families. They said the ratings should remain on the TV screen longer and that the industry should provide more information on why a program received a particular rating. Afterward, two participants who originally called the ratings worthless, said the dialogue had changed their view.
SUSAN CARTER: I changed my opinion on how I felt about the television ratings. I now think that they are valuable.
ANN GRAY: I'm sure I will use it as somewhat of a guidelines, especially if they improve the rating system. I'll be able to use it a little bit more.
KWAME HOLMAN: The entire hearing was carried live by local PBS station WTVP. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to pass final judgment on the TV ratings system perhaps by the end of the summer. As part of its review the FCC will hold its own public hearing next month in Washington.