At the core of every parental control mechanism lies its rating or labelling system. That system both identifies the appropriateness of media content for children and determines the means by which children's access to that content may be controlled. Rating systems define whether a programme can be shown within the watershed, how it should be encoded for a specific technical device, and what type of visual warning system should be used. They should give sufficient information to empower parents to make efficient and deliberative decisions concerning children's access to media content. The challenge of every rating design is thus to develop a system complex enough to give relatively detailed information about a programme, but still simple enough for both labellers and parents to use.
In this chapter, we aim to furnish adequate data for analysing and evaluating the design of rating systems. We do not ultimately rate the rating systems. That cannot be fully done, since each rating system is the product of its own history, its own background in areas such as cinema ratings, its own tradition of monopolistic public service broadcasting and transitions to private broadcasting, and its own historical sense of government imposition of taste as a form of political censorship. In a report written in 1996, Joel Federman emphasises that the best remedy for mass media evils may not be ratings. He proposes that there are methods for ‘minimising the risks and maximising the usefulness’ of rating systems (Federman 1996: Conclusions and Recommendations).
Ratings are often the product of industry fear of harsher measures, demanded by a public in the wake of a spectacular crisis, for example, but can also be