NEW YORK — Every weekday, a small, secretive group of people gather in a Los Angeles screening room to watch two or three movies. They record their reactions, then discuss the themes, the violence or nudity, drug abuse or foul language in each. Then they recommend a rating.
The group is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings Board.
For 27 years, the board's judgments have guided the American movie-going public. It has won high praise for keeping government censors out of Hollywood's creative process, but has also attracted the wrath of some independent filmmakers who say that its vague criteria can interfere with a director's artistic expression.
The system is under new scrutiny now that its founder, MPAA's near-legendary president Jack Valenti, has urged, cajoled, and finally persuaded the competitive and combative television industry to join together and create a similar rating system for TV.
''We're going to do our dead-level best to invest what we do with integrity and honorable purpose,'' Mr Valenti said at the White House Feb. 29 when he announced the industry's historic decision. ''This is not political gamesmanship.''
Valenti had the same goals in mind when he created the MPAA's rating system in 1968, a time of social upheaval when much of the American public was becoming increasingly uneasy with the candid content of films like director Mike Nichols's ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' (1966).
The ratings board was considered a stroke of genius. It allowed Valenti to replace the stern Hays Code of Conduct, developed by the industry to ward off calls for censorship in the 1920s, with a neutral system. It gave Hollywood's rebellious new directors a much freer hand and America's parents a guide to the increasingly frank and violent movie fare. (A running poll by the Opinion Research Corporation finds that parents of preteen children say the ratings are increasingly helpful: 51 percent said the ratings were ''very useful'' or ''fairly useful'' in 1969; 76 percent found them so in 1995.)
The same unsettling social forces have been at work in television over the last three decades, although at a slightly slower pace. But television executives fought any suggestion of a rating system, claiming it would infringe on their First Amendment right to free speech and be too cumbersome and complex to administer. They even threatened to go to court when Congress passed the Telecommunications Reform Act this year, which urges the industry to create a ''voluntary'' rating system or face one devised by a government commission.
In stepped Valenti, champion of the right to free speech and noted political wise man. He convinced the industry's most powerful leaders that it was better to take the high road.
''It seemed unlikely at the time that we'd all be able to come together,'' says NBC president Robert Wright. ''Going to court was an alternative when we didn't have an option like this.''
Valenti is now in the process of appointing an ''implementation board'' made up of people from all facets of the entertainment industry. It will spend the next year, under his leadership, devising rating categories and a set of guidelines that each TV network and cable company can use to rate its own programs.
''Each day, there's 2,000 hours of television programming that would have to be rated,'' Valenti says, ''as contrasted with four to six hours a day in movie ratings. You're talking about a logistical problem of insurmountable barriers, incalculable cliffs.''
That's the primary reason a television rating system, while drawing on some of the MPAA's experience, won't be able to duplicate the movie ratings.
The MPAA uses a central board made up of eight to 11 people who must be parents with children under the age of 17, have ''intelligent maturity,'' and the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents. The chairman is hand-picked by the MPAA president. The two then choose the rest of the panel, who serve terms of varying lengths. Their identities are kept secret to insulate them from undue pressure.
''We don't have a catalog of dos and don'ts,'' Valenti says. ''We just ask the ratings board members to ask themselves one question...: 'Is the rating I'm about to apply one that most parents in America would believe to be an accurate rating?' That's how these ratings are done.''
That ''intelligent layman'' standard has engendered controversy over the years, and some critics are adamant that it not be applied to a television- rating system.
'THERE are very specific dimensions of violent media presentations that can teach children to behave more aggressively than they otherwise would,'' says Rowell Huesmann, a professor of communication and psychology at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. He and other critics, like New York State Supreme Court Justice Charles Ramos, say that child psychologists and psychiatrists must be included in any discussions about forming a TV-rating system.
''If they don't address it with professionals, they're still susceptible to the same criticism that it's 'just plain folks' who quite frankly don't know what they're talking about,'' says Judge Ramos, who blasted the MPAA rating system in a 1990 ruling but ultimately upheld it.
Valenti bristles at the suggestion that some ''unknown and unseen'' child psychologist would know the impact of media violence on a child better than that child's own parent. ''You get three [child psychologists] in a room, you get three different opinions,'' Valenti says. ''Social science is not a science, it's a very fuzzy art ... and there is no precise accuracy of what causes harm in children.''
Valenti says industry representatives will devise the television-rating system, though they will listen to suggestions from anyone. And while it's too early to tell what criteria will be used, Valenti is confident that his ''average American parent'' standard can stand up to any scrutiny.
''Now we have operated on that theory for over 27 years,'' Valenti says. ''And nothing lasts that long in this explosive marketplace unless it's providing some service to parents.''
Richard Heffner, who was chairman of the ratings board from 1974 to 1994, also points out that one goal of using the ''average parent'' standard was to avoid the kind of panel of experts that make up the kind of censorship boards that dictate what can be shown in most other countries.
But he has another concern. Mr. Heffner says the movie-rating system works so well only because the theater owners, generally, act as surrogate parents in determining whether a child is old enough to attend a particular film. He doesn't believe the V-chip, the electronic blocking device that will eventually be built into every new television, can be as effective an enforcement mechanism.
''Kids will learn how to override it,'' Heffner says.
Others, like Professor Huesmann, say that simply having a rating system and V-chips will curb the amount of violence on television by making producers more thoughtful about the content of their programs
But everyone involved agrees on one thing: No matter how many rating systems or blocking devices are devised, there must be, in Valenti's words, ''a national renaissance of individual responsibility'' if the country is to deal with the growing violence, not only on the nation's screens, but also in its streets and schools and homes.
Guidelines for Movie Ratings
In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America created these guidelines. TV producers now are being asked to create a similar system.
G General Audiences: All ages admitted.
PG Parental Guidance: Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 Parents Strongly Cautioned: Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
R Restricted: Children under 17 require accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 No Children Under 17 Admitted (age may vary in certain areas).