Back in February, in response to public concerns, television executives agreed to design a system for rating roughly 1,000 hours of programming per day for objectionable content. Since then, an implementation group has been hammering out the design, which will be unveiled in January 1997.
Just what is around the corner? To preview what viewers may learn from a rating system - and to illustrate what the prime-time-TV landscape looks like now - the Monitor undertook its own rating project, focusing on the 20 most popular shows.
We used Nielsen's season-to-date rankings for the top 20 from Sept. 16 to Oct. 6 (note that there were four ties). Three Monitor reviewers signed up to watch each show over a two-week period, from Oct. 13 to Oct. 27. Most shows were thus viewed twice, although five were preempted the second week: "CBS Sunday Movie," "Pearl," "Seinfeld," "Single Guy," and "Suddenly Susan." A few episodes had only two reviewers.
Each reviewer ranked violence, profanity, sex, horror, and drugs and alcohol on a scale of 0 to 3: 0 for none and 3 for extensive. Programs were also given an age-based rating for each show in the familiar G, PG, PG-13, and R format used by the Motion Picture Association of America.
"Home Improvement" came out the cleanest, with a 0 average in all five categories, making it the only G-rated show in the group. All other programs earned either a PG or PG-13. The only show to garner a 3 was "The X-Files," for horrific scenes.
V - Violence
P - Profanity
S - Sex
H - Horror
D/A - Drugs and alcohol
Following are the compiled averages of reviewers' evaluations:
NBC, Thursday, 10-11 p.m.
V P S HH D/A
This Emmy-winning medical drama set in a Chicago emergency room is timed about right at 10 p.m. While there was almost no profanity or violence in the episodes we saw, the surgery scenes can be quite graphic, and the characters frequently have sex. Also, the show deals with adult themes that, while often treated discreetly, are inappropriate for anyone under 13 - as in one episode where George Clooney's character has a one-night stand with a woman he doesn't know, who subsequently goes into seizures and dies. The event makes him (and his co-workers) question his shallow way of life. (PG-13)
NBC, Thursday, 9-9:30 p.m.
The neurotic New York pals are all over the map as George poses for risqu photos, Elaine becomes obsessed about her medical charts, and Kramer inadvertently frames Jerry for mail fraud - bringing the wrath of mailman Newman down on Seinfeld's head. One viewer was particularly offended by a scene where Elaine rubs her rash on a receptionist's phone, hoping her condition is contagious. Sex is a frequent topic of this popular comedy, and the conversation can get downright racy. (PG-13)
3. Suddenly Susan
NBC, Thursday, 9:30-10 p.m.
V P S D/A
Brooke Shields is suddenly facing life on her own in this lukewarm new comedy. Vicky, her co-worker, decides to exploit Susan's height and recruits her for her basketball team. But she gets miffed when teammates vote Susan most valuable player. One regular watcher remarked that it was a particularly tame episode - sexual innuendo usually figures more prominently. (PG-13)
NBC, Thursday, 8-8:30 p.m.
Six twentysomethings pal around the Big Apple in this phenomenally successful show. Sex was the subplot in one episode where Ross and Rachel compile lists of celebrities it would be OK to have sex with, despite the couple's ongoing, supposedly monogamous, relationship. Also, Phoebe's half-brother assumes she and her fellow masseuses are prostitutes, and he gropes one of them. Reviewers said the material, besides not being very funny, was inappropriate for an 8 p.m. show. (PG-13)
5. Home Improvement
ABC, Tuesday, 9-9:30 p.m.
** No Warnings **
Widely heralded as acceptable family fare, this comedy about handyman Tim Taylor and family was the only show to earn a G rating from our reviewers. Also, each category averaged 0 (although several evaluations did give a "1" rating for a few categories). All three reviewers, however, cited sexist behavior or a sexist tone: In one episode, the sons show Mom how to use her new computer; in the other, Jill encounters unwanted meddling from husband Tim when she buys a sports car. (G)
5. NFL Monday Night Football
ABC, Monday, 9 p.m.-midnight
Lots of violence, but it's all in the name of the game. Also, as one viewer pointed out, while there is certainly no alcohol featured during playing time, the number of beer commercials is off the scoreboard. (PG-13)
7. The Single Guy
NBC, Thursday, 8:30-9 p.m.
Jonathan Silverman plays the dating game in New York's singles scene. One week, Johnny and his neighbor, Marie, compete in a finger-flying typing test in an effort to land a job before the rent's due. Meanwhile, his married friend, Sam, goes to a strip joint and tries (unsuccessfully) to hide his visit from his wife, Trudy. (PG)
8. Spin City
ABC, Tuesday, 9:30-10 p.m.
P S D/A
Michael J. Fox's cleanup efforts as deputy mayor go into overtime when the ex-mayor criticizes the present mayor (Barry Bostwick) and then drops dead when Bostwick yells at him. The next week, the mayor's approval rating hits the basement when a candidate for public-school chancellor is discovered to have smoked marijuana in 1971. References to pot-smoking abound, and Fox's character attempts to put a positive spin on the fiasco by comparing drug use to getting a speeding ticket. There are scenes in a bar, but in one episode the characters just ordered sodas. Also, the unmarried co-stars live together. (PG-13)
CBS, Monday, 8-8:30 p.m.
This ordinarily innocuous comedy about a downsized airline worker featured one episode that had Hilton unknowingly take a job in an antique store that fronted for a brothel. While the cameras never invade the back room, there's a fair amount of sexual innuendo, and the humor was more than a shade off-color. The next week's episode was more typical fare: Hilton tells a lie to get out of going to a wedding that snowballs waaay out of control. (PG)
NBC, Tuesday, 9-9:30 p.m.
PP SS D/A
This Emmy-winning sitcom about Dr. Frasier Crane - a Seattle psychiatrist with a radio call-in program - is all over the board content-wise. In one show, Frasier has a recurring homosexual dream about the radio station's food critic, complete with a guest appearance by Sigmund Freud, a woman dressed only in a towel, and numerous homosexual jokes. One reviewer notes: "Liquor, profanity, and sex are all used to give this show an 'adult' atmosphere, but the ploy sometimes fails, as in this [episode], because of the juvenile level of humor." (PG-13)
11. Murphy Brown
CBS, Monday, 9-9:30 p.m.
P S D/A
The two episodes viewed of the TV-newsroom comedy starring Candice Bergen contained little objectionable material - a bit of profanity and mild sexual innuendo. One episode took place in Phil's bar, with toasts and drinking, and dealt with the bar owner's death. (PG)
CBS, Wednesday, 8:30-9 p.m.
P s D/A
Rhea Perlman stars in this comedy as a blue-collar worker who has gone back to college. In the episode viewed, a comic yet profanity-laden song stretched the bounds of good taste. Part of the story took place in a beer joint. (PG)
13. Something So Right
NBC, Tuesday, 8:30-9 p.m.
P S D/A
Although this comedy focuses on a topic many parents and children of the '90s can relate to - blended families - it doesn't meet the bill for family fare. Of particular concern were the show's sexual innuendoes and over-cuddly scenes with the two parents. One episode, in addition, takes up the recent trend of women smoking cigars. (PG-13)
CBS, Monday, 9:30-10 p.m.
V P SS D/AD/A
Cybill Shepherd stars as a divorced struggling actress and mother of two who enjoys the "lush" life with her sarcastic pal. As one reviewer noted, best friend Maryann almost never appears without a drink in her hand. Also, the sexual innuendo flies fast and furious and the show features frequent double (and even triple) entendres. (PG-13)
14. Dateline NBC - Tuesday
NBC, Tuesday, 10-11 p.m.
V S HH D/A
Reviewers found content in the news magazine varied widely from episode to episode. Two viewers were affronted by one segment about a deranged coroner that was clearly "chosen for the shock value." But the next week featured a more straightforward lineup including an interview with talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell. (PG-13)
16. Touched by an Angel
CBS, Sunday, 8-9 p.m.
V H D/A
This drama's premise has an apprentice angel, along with her heavenly supervisor, helping humans in need. One reviewer noted that it is "often very sappy," and an episode involving a serious car accident pulled hard on the heartstrings. The reviewers did note, however, that violence and other objectionable content was handled tastefully and was often intrinsic to the plot. Also noted were the show's uplifting messages. (PG)
16. The X-Files
FOX, Sunday, 9-10 p.m.
FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate cases involving the paranormal and the bizarre. The program leaves watchers squirming with its high horror quotient and creepy suspense - especially this season. Its often grotesque violence is usually carried out off screen, but the impact is still powerful and the imagery hard to shake. In one episode, a lobotomy is described in detail and then the sharp instrument used to carry it out and the victim's scars are shown. In another, a strange killer is foiled before he can finish using a special tool to remove part of his victim's brain. (PG-13)
18. 60 Minutes
CBS, Sunday, 7-8 p.m.
CBS's venerable newsmagazine had little objectionable content in the two episodes viewed. Segments that raised flags dealt with negligent drug companies using tainted blood to treat hemophiliacs, and a German doctor accused of killing a mentally ill girl during the Nazi regime. One reviewer noted that many stories are too complex for young viewers. (PG)
19. CBS Sunday Movie
CBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m.
V P S D/A
Made-for-TV movies vary widely - from the seamy and erotic to the action-packed and, occasionally, to ones of import. The movie viewed for this project was "Blue Rodeo," about a mother who tries to make amends with her deaf son and meanwhile falls in love with a rodeo cowboy. Reviewers noted that while there wasn't much objectionable content, the movie had weak acting and a shaky plot. (PG)
ABC, Tuesday, 8-8:30 p.m.
P S D/A
Jackie's Prince Charming (actually the Prince of Moldavia) sweeps her off into the sunset in one show. There was some discussion about what attracts men and women to each other, but one viewer said it was one of the "tamest" episodes of the hit blue-collar comedy he'd seen. In the next show, Roseanne and Jackie head for a posh spa to slim down and "get in touch with their inner selves." (PG-13)
* Compiled from staff reviews and written by Yvonne Zipp, Judy Nichols, and Kim Campbell