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MA, He's Making SD at Me

Television: Beginning Wednesday, virtually every network except NBC will add letters to shows' ratings to alert parents to possibly unsuitable material.

September 29, 1997|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Viewers had a preview of the new content-based TV ratings guidelines on CBS last week when the new police drama "Brooklyn South," which opened with a graphic shooting spree by a cop-killer, came on the air accompanied by the label TV-MA-VSL.

Translation: a show for mature audiences only, with graphic violence, explicit sexual activity and crude, indecent language.

Starting Wednesday, viewers may encounter an alphabet soup of letters flashing across their TV screens at the beginning of their favorite shows. Virtually every broadcast and cable network except NBC will be labeling their entertainment programs with enhanced ratings to alert parents to material that may be unsuitable for their children.

Since Jan. 1, most broadcasters and cable programmers have been using six ratings symbols that indicate whether a program is appropriate for children according to age. Under the new guidelines, those ratings may carry additional letters to specify whether the program contains sex (S), violence (V), coarse language (L) or suggestive dialogue (D).

"The previous system was criticized for not giving parents enough information about why a show got a particular rating," said Chris Hikawa, vice president of standards and practices at ABC. "My goal in adding a content label to a show is to try to answer that question in the parent's mind."

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This week's episode of "The Nanny" on CBS, for example, which includes discussion of the title character's redefined romantic relationship with her boss, will be rated TV-PG-D. Fox's "Beverly Hills 90210" will carry a TV-PG-SLV rating because it includes moderate violence, some potentially offensive language and an amorous scene.

NBC, which objected to threats of legislation if the networks did not bow to congressional pressure to add the content labels, plans to continue with the age-based ratings already in place, adding its own occasional on-air advisories when it deems necessary.

Each TV network and syndicator will rate the shows that it distributes according to its own interpretation of the industry guidelines. There is no master list of curse words, violent acts or sexual situations that will trigger a certain category or additional content labels.

"These are subjective judgments of quantity and context," said Hikawa. "There will be discrepancies among the networks, and the system will evolve as each of us sees what the other networks are doing. I hope that people will give this a chance to work before they start criticizing us."

CBS is giving a TV-14-LV to tonight's episode of "Brooklyn South," a TV-14-V to Wednesday's "Chicago Hope," a TV-PG-L to Thursday's "Diagnosis Murder," a TV-14-V to Friday's "Nash Bridges" and a TV-14-V to Saturday's "Walker, Texas Ranger." Thursday's installment of the new ABC series "Cracker"--about a woman who is stabbed to death on a train--will carry a TV-14-LV.

Wednesday's episode of "The Drew Carey Show" on ABC will carry a TV-PG-DL label. The episode is about Carey's character discovering that the owner of the store where he works is having an affair with one of her staff. "There are a few curse words, as usual, in the show, and there's innuendo and jokes about the affair," Hikawa explained.

Judging from the first week's new ratings, the networks will continue to rate most sitcoms TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children), although there are some that are TV-G (all audiences) and some that are TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14), such as Wednesday's episode of "Ellen," in which the lead character, who is gay, takes up rock-climbing in an effort to impress a female fitness instructor.

"Our view is that there are people in this country who feel that's not a subject for little children," Hikawa said.

At Fox, two dramas that have been known for their unsettling subject matter--"Millennium" and "The X-Files"--will be receiving TV-PG-V ratings in their initial outings, although they frequently have received TV-14 ratings in the past.

Lawmakers and the parents' and children's advocacy groups that pressed the industry for the additional labeling will be watching closely to see how diligently and accurately the ratings are applied. And TV distributors also will be scrutinizing one another.

Already there has been some criticism of CBS within the industry for jumping the gun in using the TV-MA-SVL label in its ads for the "Brooklyn Bridge" premiere, 10 days before the enhanced ratings were to go into effect.

"They're using the label to put on a more violent show and hype it," said an executive at another network who asked not to be identified.

CBS defended its decision. "We felt that we had a special obligation with 'Brooklyn South' to let viewers know what was coming," CBS senior vice president Martin Franks said in an interview. "We didn't want anybody to say, 'Why didn't you tell me?,' especially on a Monday night"--referring to the fact that the two hours preceding "Brooklyn South's" premiere were filled with comedies.

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