Rating What's on TV

It's difficult to dispute that too much violence and sexual content is available to children on TV. Last February industry executives grudgingly agreed to come up with a ratings system to help parents better monitor what their children watch.

Those executives are expected to announce their proposal next week, but already opposition is mounting among educational and parents' organizations. Under the system being considered - loosely based on the vague categories used by the Motion Picture Association of America - parents won't know if a show is violent, if it contains "adult" language, or if it includes sexual material.

The industry is leaning toward an age-bracket rather than a content-based system. A "PG-8" rating would mean a show is not appropriate for children under eight years old. What makes it inappropriate wouldn't be clear. In Canada, on the other hand, ratings are based on a scale from 1 to 3. A show might be given a "V-3, "S-1, L-2," rating, for example, indicating violence, sexual content, and language.

The anticipated proposal for the US is problematic. Parents know better than TV executives what's right for their four-year-old, their 10-year-old, or their 13-year-old. What might be considered appropriate in one household might not be OK in another. The whole goal of the ratings should be to provide parents with as much objective information as possible.

Granted, that's not easy to do. The industry is faced with ranking more than 400,000 programs. A ratings system also is not a panacea. Even in conjunction with the program-blocking circuits known as V-chips, ratings aren't really enough to improve TV. What V-chips and ratings might do is make producers more thoughtful about the content of their programming. Both devices, of course, also rely on parents responsibly monitoring TV shows.

The FCC is scheduled to hold public hearings on the ratings proposal next month and later will give either a thumbs up or down. The TV execs, meanwhile, insist that they're still working on the proposal. That's good news. It means they could yet come up with a system that actually tells parents what they need to know.

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