The TV industry has agreed to revise America's nascent ratings system, to the applause of child advocates who say parents will get more information about content to bolster the existing age-based codes.
But fanfare about the new system, which goes into effect Oct. 1, obscures some fundamental questions about ratings in general and the new ones in particular.
For one, not all networks use ratings, and NBC has refused to add the new indicators of sex, violence, and profanity to its existing codes. Others question not only whether the ratings will serve parents, but whether they actually work.
"It's like trying to nail currant jelly to the wall," says media analyst Stephen Hess at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "TV ratings raise all sorts of other issues."
First among them is how helpful the ratings actually are. Most parents are familiar with the age-based system introduced Jan. 1, a recent USA Today poll found, and 52 percent said it helps them guide their children's viewing.
Many said they felt decisions about appropriate programming are a parent's responsibility and shouldn't be made by someone else. "I don't see why any parent would need [ratings]," says Heather Aveson, an Atlanta parent of two. "Why would you want to give over your decisionmaking process?"
The clock has been ticking on a ratings system since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act in February 1996, mandating that TV executives devise a ratings system within a year. The networks reluctantly unveiled an age-based system on Jan. 1, much like the one used for movies. It was immediately attacked by parent groups and politicians who argued that it didn't provide enough information.
In the six months that the initial system was tested, some critics asked whether the codes would protect or entice children. One study of various ratings systems found that age-based ratings, like those currently used, often attract children curious about what lies behind an "R" or "PG-13."
Under the new system, with its additional codes indicating the level of sex, violence, or profanity, the "forbidden fruit" attraction may be even stronger for some children. "The more detailed the ratings, the more they'll want to watch," says Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's head of broadcast standards.
Others worry about consistency, since the networks rate their own shows. The strongest concern of parents in Canada, which has experimented with detailed age- and content-based ratings since 1994, has been lack of a national standard.
The argument has been taken up by networks here and dismissed by child advocates. "That's a false issue," says Alvin Poussaint of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. "Once all of [the networks] get into the game and they see what each one is doing, then they'll approach uniform standards."
But not all networks are getting into the game, furthering concerns about how well the system can work. CBS, ABC, Fox, and major cable networks will use the expanded ratings, but NBC says it will stick with the age-based system, supplementing it from time to time with content information. Networks like PBS and BET aren't using either system.
"NBC is concerned that the ultimate aim of the current system's critics is to dictate programming content," the network said in a statement Wednesday. "There is no place for government involvement in what people watch on television."
But politicians and advocates don't think NBC's stand will last long. "NBC will go along after a while," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who has chaired the talks between the networks and child-advocate groups. "There will be enormous pressure through public opinion and all the other networks adopting the code, which is supported by families across America."
New TV Ratings
S Sexual content
L Offensive language
D Language filled with sexual innuendo
FV "Fantasy violence" in cartoon and other fantasy programs