How to Rate TV Shows In a Way That Is Meaningful to Families

Children's group pushes for detailed, age-based recommendations

On a Saturday morning, two small children patter into the family room and turn on the television for their weekly marathon of cartoon-watching. Suddenly their mother appears and gently clicks off the set. "The TV rating says this cartoon is very violent," she tells the children. "Let's read a book instead."

This scene could become a reality under the provisions of a television-rating system being proposed by a California-based advocacy organization, Children Now. Drawing on a survey of 18 leading communications and media specialists, the advocacy group recommends that all programs, including cartoons and violence-prone "reality" shows such as "Cops," be rated. Only sports and hard news would be exempt.

Children Now has presented its report, "Making Television Ratings Work for Children and Families," to Jack Valenti, chairman of the entertainment industry board that has been appointed to devise a rating system. The mandate for TV ratings comes as part of a sweeping telecommunications act passed this year.

"To the young child, everything on television is 'real,'" says Dale Kunkel, professor of communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "Therefore you cannot draw the conclusion that cartoon violence is acceptable or excusable merely because it is presented in a fantasy setting or context." Cartoon violence, Professor Kunkel adds, "can still pose significant risks of antisocial effects for child viewers."

The group is calling for ratings that give parents four types of information about a program: its age-appropriateness, adult language, sexual activity, and violence. Even a show's "scariness factor" could be considered.

"What is appropriate in one household may not be appropriate in another," says Gordon Berry, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles. One family might find adult language especially offensive, he says, another might object to violence, and another might be concerned about sexual content.

Age-based ratings also need to start much younger than the PG13 used for movies, according to the panel. They suggest four or five categories for children under 17, such as preschool, early elementary, late elementary, early teen, and teen.

"A seven-year-old rarely walks into the movie theater by himself, but a four-year-old, at the least, certainly does turn on the TV," says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for Communication Policy at UCLA.

A primary goal in rating television programs, experts say, should be to give parents as much objective information as possible in a simple, understandable format. Advocates emphasize that this is not a question of censoring, of dictating taste, or of limiting the availability of certain types of television programs.

Lois Salisbury, executive director of Children Now, says, "We know from social-science research that preschool kids cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. What comes across that screen is just one more part of their environment, and it's not necessarily unreal to them. It's as real as someone walking into the room or a dog that scares them."

Crucial to the success of any rating system, Ms. Salisbury says, is the way it is explained to parents. This will require an expansive public-education campaign. Panel members suggest that ratings be listed in TV Guide, in promotions for programs, and on air at the time of broadcast.

The group emphasizes that even the best television ratings and the V-chip, which enables parents to block certain programs, will not solve a fundamental problem - the negative impact that television violence and sexual content can have on children. Nor will these tools increase the supply of high-quality programming for children.

"The flip side of this ratings challenge is, how do we make it profitable and popular for advertisers and producers and broadcasters to join forces to give parents and families many more positive choices for their viewing times?" says Salisbury.

Another unresolved issue involves finding ways to consider the context of violent and sexual content on television.

"A mechanical counting of violence is mindless," says George Gerbner, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "It makes no sense, provides no valid information to the viewer." Instead, media experts say, ratings must consider the intensity of the violence, whether the consequences of the actions are shown, whether the perpetrator of violence is treated as a hero, and whether violent behavior is rewarded or punished.

Rich Taylor, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, says that the Children Now report is one of many his group is soliciting from outside organizations. "We want to get as much information as possible as we make a decision on the final ratings plan," he says. "We welcome that input and will continue to accept it until the ratings plan is complete."

Summing up her group's hopes for a workable rating system, Salisbury says, "The industry is going to be in the driver's seat here, but we hope the industry views this as a positive opportunity to relate to the genuine concerns parents and the larger society have about the negative impacts of television on children."

SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS

* Children's cartoons should be rated. Other than sports and hard news, all television programming should be rated, including "reality" [shows, such as "Cops" and "Rescue 911"].

* The rating system should not simply designate the age-appropriateness of the programming but should also include ratings for specific categories of content such as violence, sexual content, and adult language.

* Any age-based ratings need to start well before the movie system's PG13, and should be more narrowly targeted for younger children.

* For children, a program's "scariness" is a factor that should be incorporated into the rating system, perhaps in the violence category.

* The industry should invest in an expansive public education campaign.... The system should be evaluated after an introductory testing period.

* Unlike the movie rating system, [children's television] ratings should be based on scientific information rather than on perceived parental norms.

- From the Children Now report

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