YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Study Finds Underuse of TV Ratings

Television: When sexual or violent fare is shown, content-based designations are not being widely employed, researchers claim. But others fault its methodology.


WASHINGTON — The television industry's parental guidance ratings system is not providing adequate warning about many programs that contain violence, sex or crude language, according to a study released here Thursday.

An analysis of 1,147 shows on 10 broadcast and cable networks in prime time last winter and spring found that while the age-based portion of the ratings--such as TV-G, TV-14 and TV-MA--have been applied accurately, content designations are not being widely used to flag sexual or violent fare.

The study, conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation--a Menlo Park, Calif. health care philanthropy--found that 79% of shows with violence did not carry a V notation, which is part of an enhanced, content-based ratings system utilized by ABC, CBS, Fox and most cable networks since Oct. 1, 1997.

The study also found that 92% of shows with sex did not have an S designation, while 91% with coarse language did not use an L and 83% of shows with suggestive dialogue did not carry a D.

"The vast majority of shows that contain sex and violence are not being flagged with the labels," said Vicky Rideout, director of the foundation's program on entertainment media and public health. She added that much violence in children's TV shows is not being rated either, even though "some of it's pretty scary."

But Richard Taylor, a vice president at the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which helped craft the ratings guidelines, faulted the methodology of the study. He said the Kaiser analysis cited TV-G-rated shows for lacking content notations even though TV-G means the program has been deemed suitable for all ages and is not required to carry the labels even if it contains some small level of violence, sex or crude language.

In addition, one of the major networks, NBC, has refused to carry the S, V, L and D designations, and cable channel Black Entertainment Television does not use ratings at all.

Officials at Kaiser, however, said BET was not among the networks analyzed. They also said NBC's refusal to carry content ratings contributed very little to the overall findings that content assessments are not being widely used by the cable and broadcast networks to flag sexual or violent fare on television.

Release of the study comes as manufacturers gear up to roll out a new generation of TV sets equipped with the V-chip, a device that can electronically intercept program ratings and block programs in categories set as off limits by a user.

Under the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, V-chips must be included in half of all new television sets with 13-inch or larger screens by 1999; all new sets must have the technology by 2000.

The television industry has been attempting to make peace with the controversial ratings system since initially blasting it as an affront to their 1st Amendment rights.

They feared that the ratings, which appear for 15 seconds in the upper left-hand corner of the TV screen as a program is beginning, would lack context. They also worried that the ratings would cost them money if skittish advertisers back away from shows with restrictive designations.

But following release of the Kaiser report, one industry executive said his network remains committed to the ratings system. He said it would be premature for parents and lawmakers to tinker with the system before the V-chip was widely introduced.

"We are moving in the right direction," said Steven Vest, vice president of government relations for News Corp., parent company of the Fox television network. "Fox is committed to this. But this is still fairly early" in the ratings system.

The study took a more pessimistic view, concluding that in view of its findings, V-chip-equipped TV sets offer parents "only a modest degree of help in identifying potentially harmful violence they might wish to screen from their children's eyes."

Kaiser did not make any recommendations for improving the ratings system, which is voluntary and relies on networks, syndicators and cable programmers to make their own decisions on what labels to apply to their programs.

The Kaiser study generally found that television programs that did not receive a V or S had lower levels of sex and violence than shows with the designations. But there were exceptions.

An episode of CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger," while rated TV-14--meaning it was deemed inappropriate for children under the age of 14--depicted, among other things, the stabbing of two guards, a shooting of one convict and the beating of another, yet did not carry the supplementary V symbol for violence.

The ratings system was adopted in January 1997 after parents, policymakers and the Clinton administration demanded that the entertainment industry take stronger measures to reduce sex and violence on TV. Initially, TV producers and syndicators gave shows age-based ratings. But the system was expanded last Oct. 1 to include labels for potentially problematic content.

Los Angeles Times Articles