Academic journal article Policy Review

While TV Moguls Dither, Parents' Guides Deliver

Academic journal article Policy Review

While TV Moguls Dither, Parents' Guides Deliver

Article excerpt

For years, parents have worried about television exposing their children to violent, licentious, and vulgar images. If the TV industry won't stop broad- casting trashy shows, they have complained, at least it ought to provide families with advance warning about unsavory elements of its programming. The industry has finally responded, with a new rating system that professes to meet this parental request. But since the ratings are based on broad age categories, and omit specific information about the content of the shows, the industry's tepid solution is deeply flawed.

TV networks have now begun rating their shows according to age-appropriateness, just as the movie industry does. There are six categories: two for children's shows (appropriate for all ages, or only for kids over seven) and four for shows aimed at general viewership. These categories echo the rating system for movies: "TV-G," "TV-PG," "TV-14" (analogous to "PG-13" movies), and "TV-M," for viewers who are ostensibly "mature." These ratings are now published in newspaper TV listings and dis- played briefly at the start of each program.

The TV industry's age-based approach, unfortunately, is more of a diversion than a concession. It conceals what kind of objectionable content-sex, violence, or profanity-prompted a particular rating, offering parents the smiling salesman's assurance: "Trust me." But at any given age, some children are far more impressionable and immature than others; even children within the same family may cope with adolescence in radically different ways. Furthermore, the new system lumps together different kinds of so-called adult content, as if a child is equally sensitive to all varieties of such material.

Worst of all, the new system leaves all judgments about the appropriateness of content to self-interested industry moguls -- who have long opposed content labeling for fear of losing advertisers. In a Washington Post interview, 12-year-old Jessica Musikar got it right: "I read that 'TV-PG' stands for 'Too Vague, Parents Give up.'"

Movies, of course, have long been rated by age-appropriateness, but at least that system's flaws are mitigated by a raft of supplemental information published in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet. Ordinarily, televi- sion programs are not preceded by advance "reviews" of their content. The TV listings in newspapers at best describe the plot in a sentence or two, leaving parents with only the industry's assurance that a specific show is good for every child of a certain age.

The much-touted V-chip will only be as helpful as the industry's ratings -- that is, not terribly. The V-chip, to be installed in all television sets beginning next year, will screen TV programs only according to the industry's own rating system; until that system is improved, it will be incapable of sub- tler and more helpful judgments. Parents will be able to use V-chip technology to block individual programs or all shows with, say, a TV-M rating, but they will be no better equipped than they are now to evaluate specific show content and make viewing decisions adjusted to their children.

Fortunately, parents don't have to wait for an industry-generated or govern- ment-imposed solution. Several existing publications already provide con- tent-based information about the offerings on television. Here are a few resources available to assist parents in regulating the tube:

Parents Television Council

Mark Honig, the executive director of the Parents Television Council, argues that the networks are not providing responsible programming. Exhibit A: the erosion of the networks' "family hour," the 8 to 9 p.m. time slot once set aside as a prime-time safety zone of programming for all ages.

Age-appropriate labeling, he says, does nothing to clean up the content or restore that family-friendly time. It may even become a excuse not to. Indeed, Honig believes that age-based ratings will be nearly useless as guides. …

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