Three Questions About Television Ratings
In the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Congress mandated that all television sets manufactured or distributed in the United States after February 1998 contain "a feature designed to enable viewers to block display of all programs with a common rating" -- that is, to have a so-called V-chip.1 A chip enabling viewers "to block display of all programs with a common rating" is, of course, meaningless without someone to sit down and actually rate programming. Who will rate, how, and with what effect, have thus become critical issues for television producers and artists, for parents, children and teenagers, and for others who may rely upon the ratings. This article poses three questions worth pondering as the United States for the first time embarks upon a massive program of evaluating, labeling, and blocking hundreds of thousands of broadcast and cable television productions.
First, what exactly is the TV rating system that the industry created in response to the CDA2 meant to accomplish? The answer is not so obvious, and looking beyond the conventional answer ("parental empowerment"), it becomes clear that the congressional purpose was to disfavor, and hopefully chill, broad categories of speech of which Congress disapproved.
Second, who will rate programming, and how will they decide? Unless one believes that the mandated V-chip combined with the industry's rating system will have no effect whatsoever on what is produced or viewed, these procedural questions are critical.
Finally, what are the likely political and artistic effects of the U.S. ratings scheme? The evidence is just beginning to come in, but it tends to confirm that the ratings will indeed be used to censor, chill, and pressure the industry into dropping controversial shows.