TV Ratings

       Dad, when you and Mom were raising us, there were five channels on our TV, and none of them carried the kind of material that is found on the more than a hundred channels that today’s parents have to sort through. When I was 13, “That Girl” and her boyfriend kissed chastely at her door before he went home for the night; now, when my son is 13, the Friends characters compare notes to see who has had sex in the most exotic location. (As I recall, the winning location was the “It’s a Small World” ride at Walt Disney World.) As an adult, I am delighted that a wider range of acceptable programming has led to television drama and comedy that better reflect the insights and complexity of modern life. But as a parent, I am horrified by the vulgarity and appalling values that come along with it. Parents desperately need some guide to the more than 16,000 hours of material that comes into their homes each week. And these new ratings just make things worse.
       First, the ratings are suspect because of the source. The same people who make the programs are the ones who are telling parents what is appropriate for their children. They insist that the programs’ own producers should rate the programs, instead of an independent group–one that, unlike the broadcasters, would have some expertise in child development.
       But the real problem is with the ratings themselves. Ironically, the same broadcasters who complained that they did not want a “Big Brother” evaluating their programs are now acting as a “Big Brother” by assigning age-appropriateness levels for children, instead of giving parents information about program content. Just as with any other aspect of parenting, views on what is appropriate for kids vary. Different parents feel differently about exposing their children to sexual material, violence, language, and alcohol and drug use. Different children react differently, and only a parent knows whether a given 7-year-old can handle a story that may have little on-screen violence but much prolonged suspense featuring a child in peril. There is all the difference in the world between, for example, a show portraying drunkenness as charming and funny or one showing alcohol abuse as a serious problem with serious consequences; between a program showing a violent villain and one showing a violent hero. What exactly do we learn from a rating that assures us only that a program is appropriate for ages 7 and up?
       These new ratings make things worse, by giving TV executives, advertisers, and parents a false sense that they have adequate information to determine what programs are appropriate for children. As urged by Children Now and other public-interest groups, they should provide a guide to the content of the programs. They can begin by using the same system the movie industry does, conducted by an independent rating board, and explaining the basis for the rating: One movie is “rated PG for language and violence” or another is “rated PG-13 for brief nudity.” Until then, parents can conclude only that broadcasters have failed to do better because they know that if parents saw real ratings, they would turn the TV set off.