PEORIA, Ill. — An unusual congressional "town hall" meeting in this Middle American city Monday night found that the entertainment industry's television-ratings system is not playing well in Peoria.
Many of the parents who participated in the three-hour hearing strongly criticized the content of television programming and said that the current TV-ratings guidelines do not give them enough information to screen out shows they consider objectionable for their children.
"If this is your ratings system, I'm going to have to turn off the TV set completely," Carrie Flick, the mother of three children, told television industry representatives who testified at a public hearing of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that regulates television. "Everything on TV is rated PG."
"I'm horrified by what I see on TV, and I don't consider myself a conservative person," said Patti Sterling, a single mother with a 15-year-old son.
"The content on TV is bad enough. At least give us information about what's on a show. I don't think 'Friends' [the racy NBC sitcom] or 'New York Undercover' [the frequently violent series on Fox] should both be rated PG," she said.
The hearing was intended as a forum on the entertainment industry's TV-ratings system, which has been in place since January. TV executives, who created the ratings under pressure from Congress, have said that their guidelines are easy to use and helpful to parents. Based on the ratings for theatrical films, the industry's guidelines include broad, age-based categories, such as G for general audience; PG for parental guidance; PG-14 and TV-M for mature audiences.
Critics say that parents need more specific information on the content of shows--two-thirds of the programming in prime time on the major broadcast networks has been rated PG. There are bills pending in Congress that would require the networks to provide content-based rating symbols.
Three hundred families in Peoria agreed to watch television during the week of May 12 as part of the congressional committee's inquiry into the ratings guidelines. The industry, which has cast its critics as out-of-touch lobbyists and Beltway politicians, had hoped that the Peoria meeting would prove favorable to them. "This is our first chance to talk to real parents raising real children," Jack Valenti, the chief architect of the industry's guidelines, told the 250 people who attended the hearing at Bradley University.
But the meeting began badly when Scott Olson, a 17-year-old student, politely inquired why NBC's "Seinfeld" receives a PG rating when, she said, he recently saw an episode that was "all about orgasms."
Valenti, who appeared taken aback, responded, "Some shows are misrated. Sometimes I'm shocked by what I see in movies and TV . . . but we're not dictators--we can't dictate the content of TV." Later, Valenti added that individual episodes of some sitcoms that usually get a PG have received PG-14 for racier content.
In addition, Valenti noted, "Seinfeld" is one of the highest-rated shows on television.
Some parents who participated in the survey expressed concerns about the government getting involved in regulating TV content. "This is a pretty good effort, and I get concerned when I hear that Congress thinks TV is not good enough," Gary Hall, a survey participant, said in an interview before the meeting.
But most of those present seemed to agree emphatically with Sherry Laible-White. "TV is a factor in the problems of violence in our society," Laible-White said in an interview before the meeting. "Kids believe what they see on TV. If we fill our kids' minds with guns, knives and violent acts on television, we're telling them that's what is acceptable behavior in our society."
C-SPAN originally planned to air the hearing live, but it now plans to air the session, which was moderated by former network correspondent Sander Vanocur, later this week on the network.