Developing Television Ratings in Canada and the United States: The Perils and Promises of Self-Regulation
Stephen D. McDowell With Carleen Maitland
In Canada and the United States, the design and development of program rating systems, planned to be used in conjunction with so-called V-chip technologies, was not undertaken by public authorities or by boards or task forces representative of a variety of groups in society, but was undertaken by select parts of the broadcasting industry. In the United States, only if the system proposed by the industry was seen to be unacceptable to the regulator, would the public authority appoint a representative advisory committee to designate a system or informally pressure the industry group to try again. In Canada, no other strategy than that of seeking a voluntary ratings system from industry groups was proposed in public documents.
These cases raise a number of important questions: Why was self-regulation chosen as a strategy to achieve what was supposedly a very important public policy objective? Why did the Canadian and U.S. cases of self-regulation take such very different trajectories in 1997 after very similar industry standards were proposed? Why did Canada end up with a less detailed system than the United States, after several years of work by the regulator on this issue? In more general terms, what benefits or costs does self-regulation have as a way to achieve public goals? What elements need to come together for self-regulation to be seen as a legitimate complement to communications policy or guidance?
It is the argument of this paper that for self-regulation to "work" -- that is, to be seen as historically acceptable in the face of the overwhelming conceptual contradictions of being a judge in one's own case and excluding other nonindustry knowledge and expertise -- it must address, manage, and placate at least three sets of political relations and social