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The Television Ratings System Is Simple and User-Friendly

TV: More complex categories would have discouraged parents from using the guidelines and newspapers from listing them.

January 03, 1997|JACK VALENTI | Jack Valenti is chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Assn

The entire television community has banded together--for the first time--to offer guidelines to parents so they can better monitor their young children's TV watching. The guidelines are in effect now. The U. S. is the only nation to implement a parental TV assistance plan.

Yet in spite of this extraordinary, totally voluntary effort, there have been savage attacks on the guidelines by politicians and newspaper editorials. It is odd that these harsh criticisms were issued before the guidelines were completed and publicly declared.

What are the critics complaining about? They want more information, such as "S,V,L" (for sex, violence, language) attached to each program. Further, they claim the guidelines are "not content-based." That these criticisms cannot bear the light of sober scrutiny lessens in no way the anger of the onslaughts.

We gave intense thought to ratings for sex, violence and language, and concluded that they wouldn't work. An S rating would have to be applied to "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," which has been praised for its family values (sex in this program is mild to almost nonexistent but for accuracy the rating would have to be applied). "S" would also have to be assigned to Sharon Stone's film "Basic Instinct." How would parents, unaware of the content of these shows, make a distinction between the two?

A V rating would be attached to the movie "Natural Born Killers" but also to "National Geographic's Explorer" and "The Three Stooges." How are parents to sort out the violent content in those programs? How indeed.

No problem, say the critics. Merely apply intensity values, such as V-4, S-5, L-2. Fine, except for two reasons.

First, Canada experimented with this very scheme. On Dec. 18, however, the Canadians announced that they had abandoned that design and were working on a simpler plan, much nearer to the American model. Why? Canadian parents were confused by the detailed ranking system and befuddled by a remote controller that sometimes required keying in five buttons just to get the system going. Too complicated; as one wag put it, "Calculus is easier."

Second, the folks in charge of American newspapers' TV pages plainly state there isn't enough space in the daily logs grid to print lengthy descriptions. The Newspaper Assn. of America has bluntly warned us that unless our symbols were brief, no newspaper would publish them. Indeed, to make it more difficult, the very newspapers that urged more information for parents will not print more information unless it is very concise.

After carefully weighing the alternatives, we opted for a system that is simple to use and easy to understand. We mingled content and age, which works for parents. Under our system, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" would be put into category TV-G, meaning for the entire family. Whereas "Basic Instinct" (if unedited) would be put in TV-M, (meaning "mature" content) specifically for adults and not for children.

If parents go to dinner at 7:30 p.m. and leave their 6-year-old and 8-year-old in the charge of a 16-year-old baby sitter, they are not going to be able to sit in front of their TV set and see the beginning of every program. What to do if they don't know the content of programs because newspapers are not printing in advance lengthy descriptions? Under TV parental guidelines, they can make decisions quickly, in advance. They punch two buttons and block out TV-14 and TV-M or to play it safe for the very young, also block out TV-PG. They can now go to dinner knowing they have made choices easily, quickly and carefully.

Respected journalist Steven Roberts summed it up neatly: "This [rating system] is too commonsensical for the self-appointed guardians of children. We suspect that after years of trying to get the broadcasters to pay attention to them, they can't take yes for an answer."

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