WASHINGTON — NOW that television executives have bowed to public and political pressure to rate their TV programs, they face the daunting task of devising a system that will work.
Politicians have long lobbied for a rating system on grounds that it will prompt Hollywood to think twice about the amount of violence in programming. But designing a workable system - one that helps parents wend their way thought the ever-expanding dial - will be far from easy. The industry must find a way to rank more than 400,000 programs, compared with the 1,000 films rated each year by the motion picture industry.
After meeting yesterday with President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and congressional leaders, the industry's heaviest hitters announced they've unanimously agreed to rate programs, using a system that will be patterned after the familiar one used by the Motion Picture Association. Noting that the executives represent the ''most powerful cultural force in the world,'' Clinton commended them for putting their competitive rivalries aside in the interest of children and families.
Until now, the television industry has resisted a ratings system on grounds it infringes on the protection of free speech and would be unworkable and unwieldy. While they didn't quite throw in the towel on the First Amendment issue, they did take a cue from former Vermont Sen. George Aiken who, at the height of the Vietnam War, advised the Pentagon to simply declare victory and get out.
The Telecommunications Act, which Clinton signed into law earlier this month, requires almost all television sets to be manufactured with a computer chip, known as a V-chip, that can block out violent programs. The law also calls on the industry to develop a rating system to use with the chip within a year. If it fails, the government is required to come up with one of its own.
Polls show the public overwhelmingly believes there's too much violence on television. But critics of the rating system have long questioned whether it is the best way to curb Hollywood's appetite for blood and gore.
They cite recent studies on television violence, which have found that young boys, ages 10 to 14, are actually more likely to want to watch programs that have parental-discretion warnings. As for the V-chip, critics point out that children are often more technically adept than their parents. While mom's and dad's eyes may still be glazing over the directions, Junior could already have figured out how to override the pesky chip.
Despite the concerns and caveats, many scholars and critics of television violence see hope in yesterday's announcement.
''Having a rating system, in and of itself, is going to make producers more thoughtful about the material they're presenting,'' says Rowell Huesmann, a professor of communication at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
In other words, if producers of Saturday morning's intergalactic ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers'' think they're going to be targeted for a V-rating, Huesmann believes they will probably be much more likely to tone down the karate chopping and kick- boxing youngsters love to imitate.
Peggy Charren, a leading advocate for children's educational television, says limited experiments with the V-chip and the rating systems used in Canada are proving to be fairly successful.
''My tendency is to say, 'Ah, it ain't gonna work,' but if you have this great big country next door where the parents feel that it is working, that's a very strong message on the other side of that argument,'' Ms. Charren says.
Mr. Huesmann does have a serious reservation about modeling the rating system after the film industry's. It relies on informed laymen to judge what an ''average'' parent may find offensive. To effectively protect children, he says, a TV rating system must have a separate rating devoted solely to levels of violence judged, not by layman, but by child psychologists.