The Value of TV Ratings - Seen Through Parents' Eyes

Since TV ratings made their contentious debut Jan. 1, parents have played little part in the heated debate the system has provoked. They've been watching their screens - not the political fireworks - and forming their own judgments.

An informal survey of parents around the US indicates their cautious acceptance of the new ratings system. But it also points up their reservations and supplies some unexpected recommendations - feedback that could hold lessons for Washington and Hollywood as they meet tomorrow in hearings on the subject.

Most moms and dads surveyed like the idea of TV ratings but say the system, as designed, doesn't give enough details about a show's content. Moreover, parents are disinclined to put their trust in ratings, saying they still feel a need to see programs for themselves. Many seem ambivalent about TV ratings.

"They're helpful, but I wouldn't be walking the Capitol steps if they were abolished," says Susan Ortner of San Mateo, Calif.

The current system has been adopted on a trial basis by the major networks, but not by PBS or cable channels such as HBO or BET. It is modeled after movie ratings, with symbols ranging from TV-Y for all children to TV-M for mature audiences. Each network sets the ratings for its own programs, and the rating appears on screen for 5 to 15 seconds at the beginning of each show.

"They're useful," says Jeff Schloeffer, a Boston father of two, "but too general. There's no ability to see if there'll be profanity. More detail would be helpful, but we'll continue to use them in the absence of anything better. The bottom line though, is that [what's appropriate] is our decision."

While parents by and large support the idea, most aren't attached to the ratings - or even using them yet.

In Washington, meanwhile, reactions have been less detached. Politicians attacked the system within an hour of its unveiling, saying that the rating symbols appeared too fleetingly and that they didn't provide enough information about levels of sex, violence, or profanity.

"It would absolutely be more helpful to have more detail," agrees New York mother Susan Benedict, echoing almost half the parents surveyed.

More information would probably mean better ratings, Mr. Schloeffer argues. "It's not hard to be basically accurate when the ratings are so general," he says.

New Jersey nanny Colleen Grube, who oversees her charges' viewing, even has a suggestion for the networks.

"On HBO, a screen comes up at the beginning and tells you about content - everything you need to know about the language and violence," she says. "Maybe that would be useful in regular channels as well."

BUT network executives argue that for general broadcasting, unlike HBO's sophisticated niche programming, more detail is not the answer. To support their view, they point to a Canadian experiment that included multilevel ratings for sex, violence, and profanity - but that failed because it proved unwieldy and difficult to understand.

"It's confusing to the viewing audience," says Christine Hikawa, who heads ABC's standards and practices department. When her department tried to rate the network's programs using the Canadian system, 15 people produced 15 different ratings. That confusion, Ms. Hikawa says, would be compounded when viewers tried to compare ratings on one network with ratings on another, rendering the system meaningless.

"There may be a disconnect between 'I want more information' and 'I want more that's more useful to me,' " offers Rosalyn Weinman, who heads the broadcast standards department at NBC.

The movie-style system the networks are using encompasses a great deal of detail, Dr. Weinman says, adding that networks are still filtering information about it through newspapers, churches, schools, and publications like TV Guide.

"It's been six weeks," says ABC's Julie Hoover. "Let's just wait and see."

In these few weeks, parents have noticed one flaw in the system that Washington has failed to address in its push for industry regulation and that networks may be only partially able to redress.

"The ratings apply to programs but not necessarily the advertisements," says Boston-area father Peter Quirk. "There are sometimes very salacious ads in family programs."

"They need advertising sensitive to the programming," says Wendy Sachs of New York. "There are times when they don't need to show something as heavily sexual as a Calvin Klein cologne commercial."

Some parents, like Andrea Sarvady, question the validity of ratings, as well as the motives behind those who are promoting them. "I think it's a really easy way for politicians to look like they're doing something for the good of the children this country," the Atlanta mother says. "It's not their job or Hollywood's to say what's appropriate for my child. It's mine."

Ms. Sarvady is echoing, to a more extreme degree, the vast majority of parents who praised the idea but emphasized they are the final judges of what is appropriate for their children. "My perception of what's right and wrong for my children might not match the rest of the world's," explains Kimberly Porazzo of Lake Forest, Calif.

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