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Tuning In to the Great TV Labeling Debate

Television: Producers and writers voice fears that sex and violence ratings could lead to censorship, timidity and loss of advertising.


The news that the major broadcast networks are on the verge of adopting a ratings system like the one used in feature films has left television writers and producers unsettled. Not because program labeling is inherently an anathema, many insist, but because no one is certain where it will lead.

"People fear that ratings are the first step toward another kind of censorship," said Carmen Finestra, a creator and executive producer of ABC's popular comedy "Home Improvement." "So many questions remain. If content control becomes a public trust, who will monitor it? Will standards be determined by morals or politics, with everyone trying to outdo each other when it comes to 'family values'?"

Complaints about ratings range from the ideological to the practical, with insiders voicing concern about the impact on programming, the possible loss of advertising support and the difficulty of implementing the system effectively. Part of their consternation stems from the fact that no specifics are in place. Only the Fox network has committed to labeling its product; ABC, CBS and NBC are still in discussions aimed at building industrywide consensus for what would be a historic decision.

What bothers many writers and producers is not the concept of the ratings themselves but that they would be used in conjunction with the V-chip that was mandated for all new TV sets by the new U.S. telecommunications law. The device would electronically "read" each program's rating and block out those the owner has deemed objectionable.

From a creative point of view, says Mona Mangan, executive director of the Writers Guild of America East, there would be a "chilling effect."

"To get their product into the greatest number of homes, producers would aim for the lowest common denominator," she said. "We could end up with a system in which the banal and mundane are the only programs slipping through this alleged 'safety net.' If certain scenes or subjects are eliminated on a wholesale basis, issues that should be dealt with in a complex society would become out of bounds."

An industry-imposed ratings system could foster much needed "self-awareness," counters screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (TNT's "Kissinger and Nixon"). But an automatic enforcement system such as the V-chip is overly simplistic, he said, because it wouldn't differentiate between the violence in an action movie and a more serious work such as "Schindler's List."

"For it to work, there would have to be daily parental supervision--the lack of which has created the very social pathology from which violence arises," he said. "Besides, creating an artificial threshold for sex and violence could actually make things worse. If a producer knows he's already 'V-chipped out,' what's to deter him from pushing the envelope further? Ratings can be an excuse for irresponsibility."

If the VCR experience is any indication, the V-chip would pose technological problems as well, said producer Edgar Scherick ("Raid on Entebbe").

"They better hurry up and invent the damn thing so children can be educated how to program it and deprogram it--and go on to teach their parents," he quipped.

"I have no problem with a canon of reasonable guidelines," he added. "We've already lived under the standards-and-practices codes for decades. But putting a sticker in front of each program will attract the very people it's meant to keep away. It's an ineffective cure far worse than the disease."

Since the volume of programming is huge and production timetables are tight, rating television would be a "logistical nightmare," said Jeffrey Kramer, president of David E. Kelly Productions, which turns out the CBS dramas "Chicago Hope" and "Picket Fences."

"Shows often aren't finished until just before the airdate," he said. "And if a rating was made on the basis of subjectively worded 'log lines' [the written descriptions used in newspapers and TV guides], some of the best episodes of 'Picket Fences'--shows dealing with a pregnant virgin or impugning the Pope's testimony--would have been considered objectionable. The ratings system is a political football and very subjective. What will happen to 'NYPD Blue,' 'Murder One' and 'Chicago Hope'? . . . Advertisers could be frightened away."

The proposed ratings system could only help his show, maintains Tim Johnson, producer of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," because it received a squeaky clean rating from the Parents Television Council of America. Still, setting standards won't be easy.

"'Dr. Quinn' aims for 'adventure' instead of 'action'--meaning that the action has an emotional motivation and follows the story line," he said. "It's all very subtle--and how do you legislate that?"

"Picket Fences" executive producer Jeff Melvoin calls the proposed ratings system a "potential can of worms."

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