Coalition Calls on FCC to Reform TV Ratings

Written by PTC | Published May 9, 2016

coalition Fifty-five years ago today, in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow decried the majority of television programming as a "vast wasteland.” Today, his daughter Nell Minow joins the PTC and 26 other organizations in calling for a reform of the television ratings system that has not only failed to adequately warn parents about inappropriate content; it has allowed the networks to introduce more sex, violence, and profanity -- and use the ratings for cover. (pdf version)

May 9, 2016

Chairman Tom Wheeler Commissioner Mignon Clyburn Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel Commissioner Ajit Pai Commissioner Michael O’Rielly Federal Communications Commission 445 12th Street, SW Washington, DC 20554 RE: Evaluation of the Existing Television Content Rating System Dear Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners, Together, we the undersigned represent millions of Americans who are concerned about the media’s impact on children. In particular, we are troubled that the legislative and administrative measures put in place to protect children from harmful and explicit content are failing to achieve their intended purpose. We call on the FCC to take immediate steps to evaluate whether the existing age-based television content ratings system is serving the needs of parents and families. It has been nearly two decades since the FCC adopted a formal order establishing the V-Chip, the television content ratings system, and the Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board. Rather than helping parents to protect their children from harmful and explicit programming, the system has effectively protected the television industry from public or regulatory scrutiny. In recent years we have seen a dramatic decrease in the availability of family-appropriate content – especially on the broadcast networks. At the same time, the television landscape has become increasingly toxic to families, with graphic violence, explicit sexual content, and unprecedented levels of foul language becoming ubiquitous across the channel lineup and at all times of the day. And every single television series airing on the broadcast television networks is rated as appropriate for children aged fourteen, or younger. Given the lack of family-appropriate content on broadcast television, many families turn to cable as offering some alternatives. But bringing cable into your home today is like opening Pandora’s box. Content on networks that are part of the basic cable programming bundle can rival that found on premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime or Cinemax, making a parents’ job of protecting their children from harmful media content much, much harder. Despite the growing availability and popularity of over-the-top streaming, children are still spending more time watching traditional television than with any other media form – and most of that viewing is happening in real time (i.e. it doesn’t include streaming content online or time-shifted viewing). In poor and rural areas where high-speed internet connections are less available, families may not even have the ability to opt-out of the traditional broadcast and cable model. Seven years have elapsed since the Congress passed, and President Bush signed into law, the Child Safe Viewing Act. That measure called on the FCC to evaluate whether children were being adequately protected from harmful and explicit material. Rather than undertaking a thorough evaluation of the issue, the FCC responded by publishing a report that was little more than a summary of public comments it had received on the issue; and it included a promise – thus far a hollow promise – to do more. With so much explicit content within a child’s reach, families urgently need a television content ratings system they can rely upon. In order for the industry’s remedy of choice, the V-chip, to be of any value to parents, television programming must carry a content rating that is accurate, consistent, transparent and publicly accountable. There is growing evidence suggesting that the existing television content ratings system is none of these four things, and it is failing parents.
  1. The content ratings system as currently constituted is deeply flawed because the power to assign program content ratings was assigned to the same networks where the content originates. This has created an inherent and tremendous conflict of interest: It is to a network’s advantage to mis-rate its programming for a younger audience so as to gain a larger viewing audience; and a majority of corporate advertisers choose not to advertise on television programming that is rated for Mature Audiences Only. Unlike motion pictures and video games, there is no independent evaluation of the age-based rating system for television.
  2. An incorrect content rating renders the V-chip worthless. If a parent programs their television’s V-chip to block programs rated as appropriate for "Mature Audiences Only," their child will still be exposed to graphic and explicit material. Whether accidental or intentional, an informal practice has developed whereby broadcast networks never rate any of their programming "mature only," no matter how graphic, explicit or inappropriate its content may be for children. As a result, extreme, graphic content is rated appropriate for 14-year-old children; and other programs with adult content are even rated PG.
  3. The TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board (TVOMB) has enabled and sheltered this flawed content ratings system, rather than following its Congressional and FCC mandate to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the system:
    1. TVOMB is not accountable to anyone outside its own membership, nor is it transparent to the parents it supposedly serves. Most Americans don’t even know TVOMB exists. They don’t know that TVOMB is in charge of the ratings system, or how to contact its members.
    2. Parents have never been told the names of those who sit on TVOMB; why they are qualified to sit on TVOMB; how they are appointed; when or where TVOMB meets; how they determine what content ratings TV programs ought to have; or how they respond to complaints from parents and other citizens.
    3. The public is not allowed to attend OMB meetings. Representatives from the FCC are not allowed to attend meetings. Members of the press are not allowed to attend meetings. There is no transparency beyond the TVOMB members.
    4. TVOMB is composed of a chairman and 23 members, including six members each from the broadcast television industry, the cable industry, and the program production community. There are only five non-industry seats on a board of 23, despite the board’s express purpose being to serve the needs of parents; and as of this writing, not all five of the non-industry seats are filled. Of those five non-industry seats on OMB, all are appointed by the TVOMB chairman (an industry member).
In other words, the body charged with oversight of the television content ratings system is comprised of those whom it is supposed to be monitoring. Under the current system, the same people who create TV content then rate the content they’ve created, and also run the board that oversees the rating process. They also produce an occasional public opinion survey that validates the current system. Over the years, the entertainment industry has fought to keep the power to decide what is shown in every living room; but they have consistently chosen to shield the status quo, rather than actively pursue improvements or reform, as the original Report and Order establishing TVOMB required. Instead, the responsibility for protecting children has fallen entirely on parents – parents who have not been provided with the ratings they need to make decisions about whether programming is appropriate for children. If the entertainment industry is going to honor its commitment to families, the TV ratings system must be accurate and consistent, and the ratings process ought to be transparent and accountable to the public, especially to the parents for whom the system was created. The first step toward correcting the egregious problems with the TV ratings system must include an overhaul of the self-serving Oversight Monitoring Board. We are calling on you to review and revise the statues under which the TVOMB is organized to better ensure consistency, transparency, accuracy and accountability; and to guarantee that the ratings are serving the families for whom they were intended, not merely providing cover for the entertainment industry. Sincerely, Tim Winter, President (Parents Television Council) Tim Wildmon, President (American Family Association) Diane Gramley, President (American Family Association of Pennsylvania) Bill Johnson, President (American Decency Association) Brad Wells, Capitol Hill Liaison (Awake America Ministries) Matt Barber, Constitutional Attorney, (Founder of Daniel Weiss, President (The Brushfires Foundation) Phil Burress, President (Citizens for Community Values) Patrick E. Mangan, President (Citizens for Community Values of Indiana) Penny Young Nance, CEO and President (Concerned Women for America, Former Special Advisor for FCC) Donna Rice Hughes, President & CEO (Enough is Enough) David Christensen, VP for Government Affairs (Family Research Council) Andresen Blom, Executive Director (Hawaii Christian Coalition) Paul Porter, Founder (Industry Ears and Rap Rehab) Christopher Doyle, MA, LPC, LCPC Executive Director (Institute for Healthy Families) Shepherd Smith, President (Institute for Youth Development) Elaine Silodor Berk & Arthur Goldberg, Co-Directors (Jewish Institute for Global Awareness (JIFGA)) Brent Bozell, President (Media Research Center) Maurine Proctor, Editor-in-chief (Meridian Magazine) Linda Harvey, President (Mission America ) Robert Peters, President Emeritus (Morality in Media) Nell Minow (Movie MomTM) Rev. Delman Coates, Ph.D., Senior Pastor (Mt. Ennon Baptist Church) Patrick Trueman, President & CEO (National Center on Sexual Exploitation) Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D. Professor of Communication and Psychology (The Ohio State University) Monica Cole, Director (One Million Moms) Dr. Richard Land, President (Southern Evangelical Seminary) cc: Sen. John Thune, Chairman Sen. Bill Nelson, Ranking Member Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Rep. Fred Upton, Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone, Ranking Member, House Committee on Energy & Commerce
[1] Per Common Sense Media, “THE COMMON SENSE CENSUS: MEDIA USE BY TWEENS AND TEENS.” Tweens and teens have a plethora of choices when it comes to media-related activities, from watching YouTube videos to using Instagram, from playing Angry Birds on a smartphone to playing World of Warcraft on a computer. But when asked which activities they enjoy “a lot” and which they engage in “every day,” watching TV and listening to music dominate. Among tweens, the top activity is watching TV: Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) say they watch “every day” (by comparison, 24 percent watch online videos and 27 percent play mobile games every day). Among teens, music is No. 1: Two-thirds (66 percent) listen to music “every day” (by comparison, 45 percent use social media and 27 percent play mobile games every day).

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