TV Plan Earns R Rating (Ruckus)

Critics say plan, similar to movie system, should stress content more than age

It's one of the biggest developments in broadcasting since the cable box. Beginning next year, most shows on TV - from "Murphy Brown" to "The Big Bad Beetleborgs" - will likely carry a tag intended to inform parents about program violence and sexual content.

This rating system, unveiled in Washington Thursday, represents an unprecedented industry attempt to warn viewers about what comes over the small screen. It's also meant to mollify a public increasingly restive about plots based on gunplay or titillation.

But the proposal to go to an age-based system, similar to the way movies are rated, may not quiet the growing cultural war between Hollywood and Main Street America.

While the final plan announced by a group of television executives goes further than some earlier drafts had suggested, it still doesn't satisfy many child-advocacy and parents' groups, who want more specific data about the amount and type of sex, violence, and language in a given show rather than just age labels.

"We still don't consider the ratings content-based," says Shirley Igo of the National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) in Chicago. They are vowing to fight the new system, which must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission by Feb. 8.

Yet television representatives, led by Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America Inc. and chair of the panel that devised the system, are equally adamant that they will not be bullied into changing a plan that they consider fair and effective.

The result is that the imbroglio over the small screen, already a dominant cultural issue, seems likely to endure in the political arena - and perhaps the courts.

"What we're doing is in the long-range interest of every parent in the country who has small children," insisted Jack Valenti at the press conference unveiling the system.

At the core of the dispute is the nature of the information the new system will display.

Not surprisingly, since Mr. Valenti helped design the current movie-rating system, the TV ratings closely resemble those for film both in style and substance.

The categories range from "TV-G," for a general audience, to "TV-M," for mature audiences only. Children's shows will be rated as either "Y," indicating they are suitable for all youngsters, or "Y-7," meaning they are meant only for those age 7 and up.

The father of the film ratings system insists that his proposal incorporates parents' concerns. "We have a combination of age- and content-based categories," says Valenti, explaining that his goals were simple and practical: make them easy to understand and use, not to mention short enough for publishers to print.

Mark Honig, whose organization the Parents Television Council already issues a monthly ratings guide to prime-time television, says parents don't realize that they are being given tools that are of no use, explaining that parents need to know specifics. Otherwise, vastly different shows will end up with similar ratings and parents will have no idea why.

"There's a big difference between the sit-com, 'Ellen' and the police drama, 'NYPD Blue,' " muses Mr. Honig, and yet they could very well be given the same rating, leaving parents in the dark as to why.

Mr. Valenti counters that the sheer volume of television programming makes a detailed content evaluation impractical, though opponents note that HBO already does it. They also note that under the proposed system, producers will rate their own shows, alleviating the need for a central committee to rate all television shows daily.

George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the proposed ratings system represents an effort on the part of the entertainment industry to do as little as possible in advance of the introduction of the blocking capacity of V-chips in TVs in 1998.

"It's pretty clear that all they want is to establish this [system] as the V-chip basis, because once it's set up that way, it will stay," he says.

Opponents of the new ratings, including the author of the V-chip legislation, Congressman Edward Markey (D) of Mass, have said they will consider all their options, from legal challenges to petitioning the Federal Communications Commission, which is mandated to evaluate the new ratings system by February.

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