System for TV ratings ready But age-based warnings anger child advocates

December 19, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The television industry will unveil today a ratings system that contains more specific warnings about sex and violence than originally planned, but that is unlikely to silence critics who say it is too vague to be useful.

Initial plans, which leaked out last week, called for rating shows in six categories based solely on age. That provoked an outpouring of criticism from child advocates who say parents need much more specific information to control the messages coming into their homes.

While the ratings will continue to be based on age, information about language, violence, themes and sexual content will now ++ be included, according to sources involved in drafting the plan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The criticism has grown so loud that President Clinton is expected to simply accept the plan today -- pointedly not endorsing it -- despite his call last week for a 10-month trial period, according to Jeff Chester, who joined a group of child advocates yesterday at a meeting with Vice President Al Gore.

Given the hostile reaction to its initial plans, the television industry is likely to stress the content descriptions accompanying each of the age categories at today's news conference unveiling the ratings system.

For example, the rating indicating that a show is appropriate for children over seven years of age (TV-K7) will carry the content advisory, "may contain mild physical or comedic violence."

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and chief of the panel that devised the system, will also announce that each episode of every drama and sitcom will be individually evaluated.

That means the rating for a series such as "NYPD Blue" could change from week to week depending upon the subject matter of that night's show, according to the sources involved in developing the system.

L But television experts and child advocates were unimpressed.

"The proposed ratings system is little more than a Band-Aid applied to the gaping national wound inflicted by television violence," said Dr. George Gerbner, a pioneer in research on television violence and dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lois Salisbury, executive director of Children Now, one of the largest child advocacy groups in the country, agreed that descriptions added to the ratings system are a facade and that the focus is still on age, rather than content.

"Common sense tells you that a parent would rather have objective information on which he or she can make a judgment, rather than have someone from the TV industry presume what is right for their 7-year-old," Salisbury said.

The plan, which is similar to the one Valenti designed in 1968 to head off calls for government regulation of motion picture content, will rely on six age categories: TV-K and TV-K7 for children, and TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-M.

TV-G is general audiences and will carry the content advisory, "contains little or no violence, little or no strong language and little or no sexual content."

TV-PG will tell parents, "This program may contain some material that some parents would find unsuitable for younger children."

TV-14 warns that the show "may contain some material that parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age such as sophisticated themes, strong language, more intense violence and sexual content." This is the rating likely to be given to adult dramas such as ABC's "NYPD Blue," NBC's "Homicide" and Fox's "The X-Files."

TV-M is for "mature audiences only." Viewers will be told that shows labeled TV-M are "unsuitable or too explicit for viewers under 17 years of age because of "mature themes, profane language, graphic violence and explicit sexual content." This category probably will be reserved for cable movies, such as Showtime's "Bastard Out of Carolina."

The main difference between TV-G and TV-K is that only those shows specifically designed for children will get a K rating.

"What they came up with is sort of a slap in the face," said Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education in Washington. "We told them we needed a content-based system to help parents, and what they gave us was the opposite."

Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat whose legislation mandated a ratings code, agreed, saying that he was leading the charge against Valenti's plan on Capitol Hill because it doesn't label content in a way that helps parents.

"Hollywood refuses to put a violence rating on a TV program because they don't want parents to be able to easily block out that kind of programming. The industry is afraid that programming with a 'V' will be stigmatized for advertisers. It will become a scarlet letter," Markey said.

Dr. Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland professor who has written extensively on the history of self-regulation in the film industry, described Valenti's content information as window dressing that won't fool many people.

"This has become a classic Washington political story. Last week, the plan is leaked as a trial balloon, and this week some fine-tuning is done in response to the firestorm of criticism directed at the balloon," Gomery said.

But the larger question, he said, is where the movement for TV ratings reform goes from here.

Will the Federal Communications Commission exercise its option disband Valenti's panel and put one of its own in place? Or VTC will the back and forth between Valenti and his critics continue until the TV industry comes up with something critics find acceptable?

"It took three years of such back-and-forth in the 1960s before Valenti had a self-regulation plan for the film industry that was deemed acceptable," Gomery recalled. "What's happening today is only round one on the television front."

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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