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The Ratings Sham II

TV Executives Still Hiding Behind a System that Doesn’t Work

By Katherine Kuhn

Executive Summary:


This is the Parents Television Council’s fifth report examining the television ratings system.  The TV ratings include guidelines for age-appropriateness (TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA) and content descriptors to indicate the presence of specific types of content (“S” for sexual content, “V” for violence, “L” for coarse language, and “D” for suggestive dialogue).  This ratings system was voluntarily adopted by the television industry in the mid-‘90s under the threat of government regulation due to growing public concerns about TV content.    


Since the ratings were introduced, at least half a dozen studies conducted by the Parents Television Council and others have documented persistent problems with the application of the TV ratings.  These problems stem from how the ratings were originally conceived and executed, to wit, there are no guidelines dictating how they should be applied and each network rates its own programs.  During the same period, PTC studies have reported a dramatic increase in both the frequency and explicitness of sexual content, violence and foul language on prime time broadcast television.  Public opinion surveys taken since the adoption of the TV ratings have also documented growing discontent over TV content and unfamiliarity with the ratings and V-Chip. 


The TV ratings warrant close scrutiny because the entertainment industry is fighting a multi-million dollar battle in the courts of law and public opinion against the Federal Communications Commission and federal broadcast decency laws.  ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and Hearst-Argyle Television have filed suit in federal court to overturn the decency law, arguing that the ratings and V-Chip have rendered the law obsolete.  In addition, Hollywood is spending a combined $550 million on public service announcements to educate consumers and parents about the TV ratings and V-Chip.


Madison Avenue also looks to the TV ratings system for guidance.  Many corporate advertisers, particularly those which market or sell family products and services, rely on a program’s ratings when deciding whether or not to sponsor that program. 


The PTC set out to discover whether the TV ratings are reliably and consistently alerting parents to potentially objectionable content on prime time broadcast television (which still captures the largest audience of young viewers).  The PTC examined all prime time entertainment programming on the six broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CW, and MyNetworkTV) during the November 2006 and February 2007 sweeps periods for a total of 546 hours of programming on 608 individual programs.  Sports and news programs were not included in this analysis.  Since 99% of the programs were rated either TV-PG (48%)or TV-14 (51%), the analysis focused primarily on quantifying sexual content (verbal and visual), violence and foul language and the presence (or absence) of corresponding content descriptors.


The PTC found that content descriptors are not being consistently used by any of the broadcast networks during prime time viewing hours.  Two-thirds (67%) of the shows reviewed for this analysis containing potentially offensive content lacked one or more of the appropriate content descriptors. 


Other findings include:


  • 54% of shows containing suggestive dialogue lacked the “D” descriptor.

  • 63% of shows containing sexual content lacked the “S” descriptor.

  • 42% of shows containing violence lacked the “V” descriptor.

  • 44% of shows containing foul language lacked the “L” descriptor. 

  • On ABC, 100% of the TV-14 rated programs lacked one or more descriptors.

  • 92% of NBC’s TV-14 rated programs lacked one or more descriptors.

  • On CBS, 73% of the TV-14 rated programs containing sexual content lacked the “S” descriptor.

  • None of the programs included in this analysis received a TV-MA rating, meaning every program was deemed appropriate by the networks to be viewed by a child aged fourteen or younger, including (for example) an episode of C.S.I. Miami in which a woman died of asphyxiation during an oral rape.


The networks’ premise that the decency laws are outmoded in light of new technologies is entirely false, as this study proves.  The ratings system is a sham meant to keep Congress at bay while Hollywood continues to pump more and more of its toxic content into America’s homes.


A new Zogby survey indicates that fewer than 15% of consumers are using the V-Chip.  One likely reason for this abysmal adoption rate is that parents realize what the networks don’t want to admit – that the V-Chip doesn’t work. 


The V-Chip allows parents to block channels based either on the age-based ratings (and since virtually all programs during prime time are rated either PG or TV-14, blocking programs based on the age ratings would immediately disqualify 50-99% of all prime time broadcast programming) or based on the content descriptors, which are inaccurate two-thirds of the time.  The V-Chip can not be relied upon to consistently block offensive programs because parents can not rely on the ratings to correctly identify problematic content.


Clearly, the TV ratings and the V-Chip are inadequate for protecting children and families from offensive content.  Congress and the courts should not be swayed by Hollywood’s argument that the existing decency laws are no longer needed because of these technologies.   The FCC must continue to vigorously enforce broadcast decency laws, and the American people must continue to hold the networks accountable for how they use the publicly-owned broadcast airwaves.  The networks are perpetrating a fraud on the advertising community as well by underrating their programs so as to not scare-off advertisers.


Advertisers, the Congress, the courts, and – most importantly – the American public must not be fooled when the fox once again asks us to trust it to guard the henhouse.

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