How programs will be categorized and who will do the categorizing are the key questions still to be resolved as executives from the four major broadcast networks, Hollywood studios and cable television try to develop a TV ratings system that they can unveil in time for a meeting with President Clinton at the White House on Thursday.
The parties have agreed in principle to a ratings system modeled on the code of the Motion Picture Association of America. But still unsettled, sources close to the negotiations said Thursday, are who would make the ratings decisions and whether new categories will be added to the familiar G, PG and R designations.
The industry is leaning toward having each network, syndicator and cable channel rate its own programs, sources said.
"There's a general feeling that it would be very difficult to have some centralized group rate the thousands of hours of TV programming that are on TV," one network executive said. More likely, the executive said, would be having the standards departments of each company provide a rating for shows they air.
The MPAA code is familiar to the American public, and broadcasters greatly favor it over a system currently being tested in Canada, which provides numerical rankings for levels of sex, violence and language to allow viewers to screen out programming they do not want their children to see. But with the exception of a few series such as "NYPD Blue" and theatrical films aired on pay-TV networks, most prime-time programming would be classified G or PG, network executives said.
"You could have a situation where parents are blocking hours of PG-rated shows, which is something the networks obviously don't want," one source said. "There probably will be one or two categories added to the MPAA system [to provide more choice for parents] when the system is translated to television."
Meanwhile, a little-noticed provision of the new telecommunications law that mandates the development of a TV ratings system to be used in conjunction with the V-chip block device could mean that TV suppliers might be asked to rate news programming, not just entertainment. An early version of the bill had exempted news, but the final version exempted only political and religious programming.
"This bill makes no distinction between entertainment and news programming," Floyd Abrams, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, said in an interview. "Some group that thinks there's too much violence in TV news could take the networks to court, saying that, to protect children, the networks should be required to rate news as well as entertainment shows."
Some network executives remain opposed to providing ratings on First Amendment grounds. But they are resigned to the prospect and believe they are better off developing a system on their own rather than allowing the government do it for them. The telecommunications law gives them one year to act voluntarily, then authorizes the Federal Communications Commission to impanel a group to develop ratings.
The law wouldn't force the industry to utilize the ratings, but network executives believe public support for the idea would compel them to act.
That point was acknowledged Thursday in a speech that Robert Iger, president of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., delivered to the Federal Communications Bar Assn. in Washington.
"As a parent, I want all the information I can get, and that is clearly what we are hearing from our audiences," he said. "We know we need to be responsive, and that's why we hope the solution will ultimately be achieved in a self-designed, broad-based industry ratings system.
"We are committed to trying to work out a voluntary ratings system, but continue to believe strongly that governmentally mandated ratings would be unconstitutional," Iger said.