A Family Warily Welcomes Television-Show Ratings

NINE-YEAR-OLD Gerry Griffin was walking home from school this past fall and saw a group of kids pretending to be Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the intergalactic stars of Saturday morning's weekly cartoon fest.

''They were punching and kicking each other,'' says the third-grader, whose thoughtful brown eyes squint at the memory. ''They got in a bunch of trouble because almost all of them got hurt.''

For decades, politicians and child advocates have railed against the increasing levels of violence on television, while network executives have held tight to the First Amendment and pledged to do a better job. On Thursday, in what critics see as an abrupt turnaround, television executives will meet with President Clinton to discuss, among other things, setting up a rating system to guide parents through the ever-lengthening menu of television programs.

The Telecommunications Reform Bill provided the impetus for the change of heart. It requires that all televisions with 13-inch screens or larger be manufactured with a so-called V-chip, a computer chip that can screen out violent programming. The bill, which President Clinton signed into law earlier this month, also urges the TV industry to voluntarily come up with a rating system to use with the V-chip. If it fails to do so within a year, the law instructs the government to institute one.

''George Orwell would appreciate that use of the word 'voluntary,' '' says Marjorie Heins, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Arts Censorship Project. ''The [television executives] are under a lot of pressure to do it.''

Movie guides a model

Cable and network officials have enlisted the help of Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who devised the movie industry's voluntary rating system in 1968.

While they are keeping their discussions private until Thursday's White House summit, some details have leaked out. The rating system is expected to be modeled on the MPAA's trademarked system, but may include more categories. Executives are still reportedly ironing out who will do the rating and how programs will be judged.

Around the Griffins' dinner table in West Orange, N.J., young Gerry's parents greet the prospects of a rating system and V-chip with a mix of relief and skepticism.

''There's way too much violence on TV that doesn't need to be there,'' says Beth Griffin, Gerry's mother, who says she tries to protect him and his five-year-old sister Lydsey from viewing too much televised mayhem. ''Maybe this has some credit to it, but who's going to be making the decisions? Are they going to start rating Bugs Bunny?''

TV executives are discussing allowing each company to rate its own programs using an agreed-upon industry standard. Like the MPAA's ratings, they would provide a general guide for parents: ''G'' for general audiences, ''PG'' for parental guidance suggested, ''R'' for restricted, and so on.

''I don't want a letter,'' says Gerald Griffin, young Gerry's father. ''If someone can tell me what is in that program, whether it's extreme violence, whether it's mild violence, whether it's nudity or bad language, that's the stuff I need to know to make an intelligent decision as a parent.''

The older Griffin is also leery that a rating system could create a kind of self-censorship. While he would like to see more restraint used in some children's programs, he's also concerned that cutting-edge programs that deal with controversial issues may find fewer outlets on television. Many in the arts and entertainment industries share his concern.

''Producers of commercial entertainment who want to make maximum profits,'' says Ms. Heins of the ACLU, ''do not want a rating that is in any way going to minimize their opportunity for profits.''

Simple ratings, subtle films

Heins argues that ratings are by their nature simplistic, and arts and entertainment are often subtle and complex.

''You can't just decide something gets a V-rating [for violence] based on the number of times somebody's assaulted because that doesn't distinguish between 'Schindler's List' and 'Lethal Weapon 8,' '' Heins says.

The Griffins know the problem well. Both parents are fans of the three current ''Star Trek'' series, seeing them as more thoughtful entertainment. They watch them often and sometimes let Gerry and Lydsey join them.

''Then I read somewhere they were rated in the top 10 of all shows out there for violence on TV,'' Mrs. Griffin says. ''And after all these precautions we've taken, all of a sudden I realize that I'm letting my children watch one of the top-10 violent shows.''

The Griffins are also aware that a rating system could have the opposite effect, making ''R''-rated shows more desirable to children. Young Gerry already says he sometimes feels ''kind of left out'' when other kids ask if he's seen ''Batman Forever'' or other violent movies and shows.

''I felt that way, too, when I was a kid because there was stuff that I wasn't allowed to watch, either,'' says his father, who readily admits to sneaking over to a friend's house to watch forbidden gory programs as a child.

The recent study on violence on television underwritten by the cable-TV industry found that boys aged 9 to 14 were more likely to want to watch a program if it contained a ''parental discretion advised'' warning about content.

''Maybe you reach an age where you know it's phony and it's kind of entertaining,'' says Mr. Griffin. ''But if you haven't reached that age yet, it's got to be terrifying.''

One day young Lydsey Griffin got a fright watching what her mother thought was a benign movie: ''Benji,'' the Disney film about a traveling dog. In one scene a bad guy kicks a female dog and she is thrown across the screen. ''Lydsey couldn't handle it, she was crying, she was visibly upset,'' Mrs. Griffin says. ''She could not tell the difference between that dog being kicked really and the movie, although I tried to explain it to her.''

Pretend vs. real violence

Several psychological studies show that children up to the age of 4 can't tell the difference between real and fictional violence.

''That's why it's very important to pay attention to the hours of broadcast and the content of shows,'' says philosopher Sissela Bok, author of a study on TV violence and ''Common Values'' (University of Missouri Press, 1995.) ''We have to make people more aware of what it feels like to be a very small child witnessing the rapes and torture and assaults on television.'' She supports the V-chip idea, noting it's being tested in Canada and so far has been ''warmly greeted'' by parents.

By the end of dinner after discussing the pros and cons, both Griffin parents also decided the V-chip and the rating system were potentially useful tools. ''We are being inundated with violence, there are 190 channels,'' Beth says, noting that even the best parents sometimes use TV as a baby-sitter. ''If this is something that can keep my children from being harmed, then good.''

Young Gerry doesn't particularly like violent shows - unless, say, a monster ''looks cool,'' so he says he has no problems with a rating system. But he did want to know if it could also block out video games: ''There's a new one out called 'Doom,' and basically, you have to go out and shoot people and a lot of weird things. I don't like it at all.''

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