TV Ratings

       We’ve been arguing about this issue at least since I persuaded you and Mom to let me watch Laugh-In on a school night, and I’ll admit that our views are closer now than they were then. If you think the ratings glass is half full and I think it is half empty, it is probably because you are not raising school-age children right now, and I am. But let me tell you why I think we need more right now, and “a step in the right direction” is just not good enough.
       We’ve now had nearly a month of seeing the TV ratings in action and trying to apply them. And, as I feared, assigning an appropriate viewing age to TV shows, determined by the people who make and broadcast them, is useless without some information about content. Where do these determinations come from? A recent episode of Friends got a PG rating, considered suitable for all but the youngest children. The show’s situation (and its comedy) came from one character’s not being able to remember which of his roommate’s seven sisters had sex with him the night before. In one scene, the roommate brags about having sex with two women at the same time. I can’t be the only parent who is uncomfortable allowing my children (ages 11 and 13) to see the way sexual values are portrayed on this show. An adult, with context and experience, may appreciate Friends, which is unarguably funny, and even charming and endearing. But kids are looking for mores and answers and, most of all, coolness–and they don’t have the ability to put it in perspective. I would like to know why this show is rated PG, and what it would take to make it something more restrictive.
       The movie ratings have been around since right around the time we argued about Laugh-In so, even though I accept your argument that it is harder to rate television, I think some of what we have learned from the movie-rating experience can be instructive. Any rating system is inherently limited and formulaic. While the movie ratings are useful, especially since the Motion Picture Association of America has begun to provide the reasons for the ratings, they still tend to be based more on whether specific body parts, words, or levels of violence and destruction are depicted–and in how much detail–and less on content.
       A well-known example is Fly Away Home, released last summer. The director was told to insert a four-letter word to get a PG rating, because the distributor said that school-age kids won’t go to G-rated films, except for Disney animation. So the word was added, as unobtrusively as possible, said off-camera by one of the bad guys. In addition to the obvious and time-honored problem of the use of expletives as marketing devices (Mom was right–people do use those words just to get attention), there is also the question of why the opening scene, in which the main character’s mother is killed in an auto accident, was not enough to get a PG rating. Maybe I’m just quirky, but if I had been on the ratings board, I might have given it a PG because of the scene where the girl gets a nose ring.
       Unfortunately, content-based ratings are not just harder than evaluating how much of a bare behind gets a PG-13, they are more sensitive, more subject to criticism. Look at Disney’s big 1996 animated release, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It got the equivalent of a PG in Canada, due to the bad guy’s almost kinky obsession with the heroine. It might have had a PG in the United States if it had been made by anyone other than Disney; but more likely, the studio is less of an obstacle than the subjectivity inherent in a content-based approach. For me, all of this argues for more comprehensive, and comprehensible, disclosure of issues raised, as well as body parts and naughty words. For a glimpse at the ultimate example of a complete dissection of every possible issue that might concern every possible parent, take a look at Screen It, which shows that it can be done.
       You say that other groups will step into the breach and provide ratings that reflect a range of perspectives. The networks say that they will challenge any effort to make them go further. What is going to make them take the next step? And how can the government become involved, without being hit by arguments about the First Amendment?