Written by PTC | Published April 6, 2016
Many of you have heard this from me before: the TV content ratings system is inaccurate, and the consequence is harm to children. So, why am I saying these words, yet again, for the umpteenth time?
We knew we had to launch a bigger campaign when a sexual intercourse scene, aired during a teen-targeted television show, included the woman telling the man to “Stick your finger in my ass” -- and yet the program was rated as appropriate for children.
In recent years, we’ve demonstrated that the volume and degree of violence on broadcast TV is approaching that of cable. In recent months, we’ve seen a woman commit suicide by shoving an ice pick into her eye; a man pull a razor blade across a woman’s throat as she choked to death on her own blood; and a man stab a woman to death as she was performing oral sex on him in the front seat of his car. Yet these shows -- and every other program on broadcast TV -- is rated as appropriate for children.
Increasingly explicit dialogue is coming not just from adult characters, but from the child characters. Just two weeks ago on the Disney-owned ABC network’s program The Real O’Neals, a character used the words “ass, bitch, butthead, douche, slut, slut shamer, slut bag, and slut basket” in one sentence. The show was rated PG, which is the same rating Disney uses for Cinderella, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur.
Today marks not just the release of our report, but the public launch of our campaign for content ratings reform.
In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission adopted an order authorizing the creation of three things: the V-chip, a TV content ratings system, and an oversight monitoring board, ostensibly to ensure the system’s effectiveness. The reality is that the system has only provided political cover for television networks, rather than benefiting those whom it was purportedly intended to serve – parents and families.
First, in order for the V-chip to work, the content ratings must be correct. But there are no independent or objective arbiters for rating television content. Unlike the Motion Picture Association of America, TV network executives rate their own material. Parents are told to rely on the ratings. Major TV sponsors also rely on the ratings, because most have a policy not to sponsor TV-MA programming.
Second, the oversight monitoring board is composed of the very same individuals who mis-rate programming to begin with.
This creates an inherent conflict of interest, and we’re seeing tangible proof of the broken system every day.
I told two FCC chairmen – in person – about the “stick your finger” content. The first instance resulted in the only time I ever saw Julius Genachowski speechless; and the second led to my being invited to personally present my concerns to the oversight monitoring board, or TVOMB.
Leading up to my attendance at the TVOMB meeting in June of 2014, I asked if I could invite a journalist who covered the entertainment industry beat, so that he or she could report on the dialogue; I mentioned by name John Eggerton from Broadcasting & Cable, and Dave Bauder from the Associated Press. Both have written on the PTC’s work in years past. Both have been fair in their reporting, but neither has been particularly friendly to our efforts. I was told “No, absolutely not. No members of the press are allowed to attend.”
I then asked if I could invite someone from the FCC to sit in on the meeting. I specifically suggested Matthew Berry from Commissioner Ajit Pai’s office, who served previously as the FCC’s General Counsel. Again, I was told, “Absolutely, no."
I said it was concerning that there was no transparency for a group whose work impacted children and families every day; but I was told that under no circumstances would an independent observer be permitted.
I was also told privately by an outside source that the monitoring board had not actually met in a number of years, and that there was no public record of what took place at the meetings.
So I went to Washington. Despite the fact that the FCC order states that there are to be five public interest groups on TVOMB, only two groups were present at that meeting, one of which was a lobbyist representing a firm hired by the industry. All others were industry executives. Even the administration of TVOMB is handled by employees from an influential lobbying firm called Podesta Group.
During the meeting I showed numerous video clips with explicit television content, including the aforementioned “stick your finger” clip. I asked the group how that could possibly be considered as appropriate for children as young as 14. The attendees shrugged, and the verbal response was that all content ratings are subjective. My response was that the reason there is an oversight board is to bring objectivity to the process.
We subsequently offered a number of recommendations that would bring greater accuracy, consistency, transparency, and public accountability to the content ratings system. Not coincidentally, TVOMB published polling data that was about as objective as what we might expect from Pyongyang. The system is valuable and works just fine, we were told.
Members of the TVOMB subsequently accepted my invitation to visit the PTC offices in Los Angeles, and view in person how we conduct our research gathering and reporting. But nothing of substance came from it. Nothing has changed, because they don’t want it to change. The system works just the way the industry intended.
To my knowledge, no other federally-sanctioned oversight function is handled by the very industry it is intended to watchdog. The system needs comprehensive reform. With the release of our research report today, we are calling for a complete overhaul to the current TV Content Ratings System. The FCC has the authority to accept or reject the system in total, and barring immediate and comprehensive changes, we call on the FCC to formally reject the current system that fails parents every single day.
They say that the fish stinks from its head to its tail. That is an apt description of the content ratings system.
To review the latest study, see real examples of misrated content, and to learn how to take action and fix this broken system, go to: TV Content Rating Reform