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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE

This editorial is not yet rated

October 14, 2006

WHERE DOES AN R RATING end and an NC-17 rating begin? That's a question for the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings board. But to ask its members, you'd have to find them. Since its inception in 1968, the board has been a mostly anonymous entity whose proceedings were kept secret.

At least until now. In a recent documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," director Kirby Dick identifies many of the MPAA raters -- only its chairwoman, Joan Graves, was previously known to the public -- and asks questions about the ratings system. Are studio pictures held to the same standards as independent films? Does extreme violence garner an NC-17 rating as readily as depictions of sexuality?

According to a former MPAA rater who agreed to appear in the film, raters receive no guidelines or training for the job, nor does the board include experts in media literacy, child psychology or the like. Moreover, in interviews with critics, authors and a host of independent filmmakers who've either had to reedit their films to get the coveted R rating or settle for an NC-17 (which usually means the film is banned from most large theater chains), "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" reinforces the notion that raters are far more squeamish about sexuality -- especially gay sexuality -- than with depictions of even the most extreme violence.

On principle, it's hard to argue with the concept of having a voluntary rating system. But that system is only as reliable as the quality of the information it conveys, and the MPAA should work harder to make its system more precise and less arbitrary.

TV cable channels, for instance, do a better job -- preceding their programming with specific warnings about violence, language or sexuality. Video-game ratings are compiled from a comprehensive list of rating symbols and content descriptors; even if a game is recommended for children or teenagers, parents get specific information about the game, down to warnings such as "alcohol reference" and "crude humor."

An R rating is often explained in small text below the letter itself ("Language including some crude sexual references, drug-related material and brief violence," reads one such disclaimer). But the practice is by no means uniform. Moviegoers, who can pay as much as $12 per ticket, still get less information about what they will see than consumers of cable television or video games.

As an MPAA spokesperson said in "This Film Is Not Yet Rated": "We don't set the standards, we just reflect them." The question is, how clouded is that mirror?

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