Cracks in the ratings leave parents in the lurch

Movies rated PG-13 vary widely in content, leading to calls for reform

The PG-13 movie rating turns 20 this year, but the mood surrounding the anniversary is hardly celebratory. Two decades after the decision to close the gap between PG and R-rated movies, critics and family advocates are charging that an overall ratings reform is in order. Their efforts are fueled in part by parental concern and at least one 2004 study suggesting that the PG-13 movies of today are approaching the content of the R-rated movies of 10 years ago.

To better help parents monitor an expanding universe of media, some observers are calling for a uniform rating system that covers everything: movies, TV, and videogames. Others suggest changes to the current ratings, such as an R-13 category or even an A for adult movies that aren't pornographic, as a way to address the problematic rating at the center of the debate.

"The PG-13 rating has been the heart of most of the complaints and most of the problems with the rating system, particularly in the last 10 years," says Michael Medved, a cultural critic and host of a syndicated radio talk show. "Most American parents have never fully registered the essential difference between PG and PG-13. In fact, I think you could say the rating was deliberately designed to obfuscate."

Back in 1984, PG-13 looked like a good answer to the problem of more nudity and violence slipping into PG movies. The 1984 film "Sixteen Candles" was rated PG, for example, even though it contains a shower scene in which a woman is shown topless. But it was another 1984 film that galvanized the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to add the extra rating it had already been considering - the Stephen Spielberg-George Lucas project "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." That movie earned a PG rating despite the fact that a scene showed a man's beating heart being removed from his chest.

Since then, Hollywood has become more enamored of the rating. At the box office, PG-13 movies are now more common than R-rated ones among the top-grossing films in the United States. Of all the movies released between January 2000 and August 21 2004, 108 earned more than $100 million, and of those 62 were rated PG-13, and 20 were rated R, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking firm in Los Angeles. (By way of comparison, between 1990 and 99, of the 128 movies that earned more than $100 million, 46 were rated PG-13, and 45 were R.)

Movie critic Roger Ebert, in an e-mail, says Hollywood isn't directly influencing how movies are categorized, but that "there has been steady, relentless pressure over the years to expand the scope of what is permissible within PG-13."

Some parents say they don't typically rely on ratings alone. Instead, they scan local papers and the Internet (where they can find independent reviews on sites like www.screenit.com and www.kidsinmind.com) for additional information.

Maige Becerra of Manhattan reads The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and the Village Voice to determine whether her 13-year-old daughter, Renee, will be permitted to see movies such as the 2003 remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (that was a "no") or the recent R-rated "Garden State," which the two attended together.

"I don't let Renee watch Rated-R movies unless I know a little bit about the content," she says. Her daughter says sometimes she will just wait until a movie comes on HBO and sneak a peek anyway.

A few things automatically earn a movie at least a PG-13 rating: drug use, or the "single use of one of the harsher sexually derived words, though only as an expletive," according to the MPAA website. If more than one of these words is used, or is used in a sexual situation, then it's an automatic "R." But the rating board, which includes parents, can change that rule if, by a special vote, it "feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents."

Mr. Medved argues this is the wrong approach. Instead of making a determination based on instances of swearing and the like, the board should base it on the underlying message. He points to the movies "Gone in Sixty Seconds" and "The Fast and the Furious," both of which were rated PG-13. "It seems to me that a movie ought to get an R rating if it actively encourages car theft ... [or] drug use, or alcohol use."

Today, the MPAA ratings are facing closer scrutiny by academics. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health recently pointed out signs of "ratings creep." The study addresses all the current MPAA ratings, and found in particular that PG-13 is approaching the average roster of foul language, violence, and nudity of the R-rated movies of a decade ago. Authors of the study argue that with more media synergy - such as movies and video games coming out on the same day, but with different ratings - a unified rating system across entertainment media is necessary.

"The Harvard study to me is less relevant than parental reaction," counters Jack Valenti, retiring MPAA president and CEO, in a phone interview. The current ratings - including PG-13 - are working fine, he argues, because parents say so. The outcome of an annual survey by the MPAA found in 2003 that 76 percent of parents with children under 13 said they found the current ratings system is "very useful/fairly useful" as a guide for deciding what movies children should see. Twenty-one percent said it is not very useful.

The system may not be perfect, says Mr. Valenti, but with that many parents approving, it seems unwise to change anything. "I'm not claiming that this is the finest we can do," he says. "This ratings system has survived, it has stood up ... why change it so long as parents find it useful?"

Critics argue that if the system were working as it should, there wouldn't be so much discussion about the need to improve it. But they also encourage parents to seek out as much information as they can about movies, pointing out that what may be appropriate for one 13-year-old, for example, may not be for another.

In an effort to help parents, five alternative-ratings groups joined together in July to form the Coalition for Independent Ratings Services.

"Parents need so much information to even try to begin to raise our kids well," says Lori Pearson, lead critic for movie ratings site kidsinmind.com. "And though I have nothing bad to say about MPAA, because they've been doing a fine job all these years, I really think that we need to look at the system and reevaluate it."

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