Support for TV ratings is weak Television: The six age-based categories of programs do not satisfy those who want content spelled out.

December 20, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- Making an appeal for support "directly to the parents of America," Hollywood yesterday unveiled its hotly contested TV ratings system and announced that it will take effect Jan. 2.

While it will take months before there is any legitimate sense of how parents feel about the age-based system, reaction here was swift and not very supportive.

In the White House, President Clinton called the proposal "an important first step in helping parents control the messages that enter their homes" but went out of his way to say he is "not endorsing it as the best possible plan" -- as Valenti and top television industry executives sat silent and unsmiling.

On Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, called it a "betrayal of America's parents that will take the 'V' out of V-chip," while a vast coalition of groups ranging from the Parent-Teacher Organization of America to the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America denounced it -- calling instead for a content-based system that flags parents to sex, violence, coarse language and adult themes.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and architect of the plan, tried to sell it yesterday as being a "blend of content and age-based information for parents." He emphasized content data that had been added in recent days and used the results of industry-sponsored national polls conducted as recently as yesterday to argue that it was "parent-friendly."

The polls conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies claim to have found 86 percent of 1,207 parents surveyed favoring the industry's age-based system. But Dr. Dale Kunkel, a researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara, explained that the survey was skewed by parents being given only two choices from questioners: the age-based ratings or no ratings system. What 86 percent actually said was that an age-based system was better than no system at all. They were not given the option of a content-based model.

Stressing that "nothing is writ in stone," Valenti said the plan now calls for the icon representing the appropriate rating category to appear in the upper left corner of the screen during the first 15 seconds of the show. Only the icon -- such as TV-G -- will appear, not the content information. Valenti said he is urging newspapers and magazines that carry television listings to include icons with each show, as well as a regular printing on some kind of timely basis of the category descriptions "so that parents can clip them out and paste them up on the refrigerator or next to the television set."

The ratings themselves will be decided by the networks and their affiliates. While Valenti announced that a review board was being established to "assure the integrity of the system," the 19-person board will be exclusively made up of television industry executives with Valenti serving as its chair for the first year.

"That's exactly the kind of thing that so concerns us," Markey said. "This is not a system made up to serve the parents, but rather to serve the television industry. Some parents are concerned about their children seeing violence, some about language. What good are these vague categories to them -- telling them it might contain sex or violence or language?"

Markey's most pointed criticism yesterday was that in not using labeling for content -- for example, using letters V, S and L to alert parents to violence, sex and language in the shows -- the industry was laying the groundwork to subvert the V-chip legislation passed into law last year. "Without a 'V' label, how will the chip know what to block?" he asked.

The one thing everybody agreed on yesterday was that the reaction of the parents to the plan is what matters.

"Let's give it a try, and let the parents say yea or nay," Valenti said in answer to his critics.

"The ball is now in the parents' court," Clinton said in accepting the plan from Valenti at the White House. "It is they who will have to seize this opportunity to use the system and evaluate it. I am pleased the industry presents the plan to me today with the assurance that it will make a systematic and rigorous effort to get continual input from parents about what they think. And, if a consensus is reached that it should be more content-driven, then it can be changed."

"This is only Round 1. The fight now moves to the Federal Communications Commission in the next two months," Markey said, referring to the two months of open comment on the TV Parents Guideline at the FCC starting Jan. 2. The FCC could abolish Valenti's industry system and set up one of its own, though it's unlikely with Clinton urging that the plan be given a trial period.

"The bigger battle is that of public opinion," Markey added, "a debate on whether the Hollywood plan or the content-based one we advocate would better serve the public. It's a battle for the minds of America's parents."

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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