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
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
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
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
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.