If ABC, NBC and CBS follow Fox's lead in coming days and promise to impose a ratings system for sex and violence on their programs, the word "historic" will be sounded often and loudly from Washington to Hollywood. After all, the networks have resisted calls for a ratings system for more than 25 years.
But such self-regulation by the networks may simply be a bad rerun of the movie industry's evasive tactics rather than a watershed development, say media scholars. In their analysis, the proposed ratings system -- which will be modeled on one instituted in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America -- is mainly an attempt by the networks to dodge government regulation. It will neither reduce violence on the airwaves nor enable parents to keep objectionable programs out of their homes, they say.
"It is primarily a delaying tactic that's intended to alleviate the pressure," says George Gerbner, professor and dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Remember two years ago when there were nine bills pending in Congress on television violence and the networks declared that they were going to put advisories on violent programs?" Dr. Gerbner asks. "Then, at the end of the fall season after the pressure died down, they decided they couldn't find any violent programs."
Shirley Peroutka, director of the communications department at Goucher College, calls the ratings proposal "another bogus system of self-regulation by the networks to get parents and politicians off their backs."
"It's always the same," says Douglas Gomery, author of several books on the film and television industry and a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. "They get into some kind of trouble in Hollywood, and then they rally around industry self-regulation to head off any possibility of government control. It happened with films in the 1960s, and now we're headed down the exact same road with television."
The road to a network ratings system runs straight through the heartland of our culture wars, with enough twists and turns to make ideological fellow travelers out of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole.
Traffic on the road has been very heavy recently: passage into law of the telecommunications bill with its V-chip provision, release of a highly publicized study of television violence by the cable industry, trial balloons from three networks on a ratings system, an announcement from Fox that it was committed to rating its shows and a summit scheduled for next week in Washington between President Clinton and network executives.
It is all part of a pattern of new network ownership and election-year politics converging with a growing public concern over sex and violence in television and film. But it is a pattern not easily understood because of spin-doctoring from Network Row, Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail.
The first two dots to connect are the V-chip legislation and the ratings system. Two weeks ago, Mr. Clinton signed the telecommunications bill into law, with its V-chip provision requiring all new television sets starting in 1998 to have a V-chip -- a computer chip that would read ratings codes embedded in programs and block shows with ratings deemed undesirable by the set's owners.
But for this system to work, a ratings system is needed. Another part of that provision gives the television industry one year to develop and institute a ratings system on its own. If the industry fails to do so, the Federal Communications Commission can step in and create a government ratings system -- though, under the new law, the FCC does not have the authority to force the networks to adopt its system, a fact missed in many analyses.
The networks knew by the start of the year that the telecommunications bill was going to pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by Mr. Clinton. But until two weeks ago, they seemed united in their contempt for the V-chip provision -- mocking it as impractical, unconstitutional and vowing to fight it in court.
"It is the opinion of our attorneys that the V-chip legislation is unconstitutional," Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's West Coast president,
told reporters at the winter press tour last month in Los Angeles.
"The whole tone of it is just ridiculous," added Bob Wright, NBC's president and chief executive officer.
"It's a logistical nightmare," said Les Moonves, CBS Entertainment president, arguing that television has thousands of times more hours of programming each year than the feature
film industry. It would be impossible to rate it all, he said.
So, what happened in the last week or so that made the networks suddenly change their tune?