PTC Urges FCC to Modernize TV Content Ratings System and its Oversight

Written by PTC | Published March 13, 2019

LOS ANGELES (March 13, 2019) – The Parents Television Council is urging the FCC to “recognize the need for modernization of both the application and oversight of the TV Content Ratings System” in its public comments for the FCC’s review of the TV Ratings System and Oversight Monitoring Board, MB Docket No. 19-41. (Full comments here.)

In the comments, PTC President Tim Winter reports on how the PTC is “uniquely qualified to comment in this proceeding” given the organization’s television database through which numerous research reports detailing the TV content ratings system’s failures have been produced; he cites specific misrated content on broadcast and cable television; and he details the PTC’s thorough years-long outreach to the TV Oversight Monitoring Board in order to bring up concerns about the TV ratings system and how the board has failed to address these concerns.

Excerpts from the PTC’s comments are as follows:

From the Introduction

“Most of us have experienced the occasion in a grocery store where we pick up a box of food that we are considering for purchase. We look at the back of the box and review the ingredients and nutritional value; and we weigh whether that particular product is something we want to ingest into our bodies. Americans rely on the accuracy of that information; and they rely on some level of oversight that ensures the system’s integrity. The TV Content Ratings System and its oversight is substantially similar to this food analogy, especially for concerned parents who are considering whether programming is appropriate for their children to ingest. Just like food, the entertainment product information must be accurate, and there must be reputable oversight to ensure the integrity of the system for labeling it. Sadly, with the implementation of the system adopted by the FCC’s 1998 Report and Order, neither has proven to be the case.”

Concerning the Accuracy of the Ratings Being Applied to Television Programming

“With our sophisticated recording and tracking system, the PTC has gathered data that has empirically proven the TV Content Ratings System routinely to be inaccurate and inconsistent. We could cite hundreds, if not thousands, of specific instances where television programming was rated as appropriate for children when it likely should not have been so rated.

“Simply put: If a parent were to view the content examples referenced above and learned that all were rated either TV-PG or TV-14, then they would conclude that one of two things must be occurring: Either the TV networks are improperly applying the content ratings in accordance with the guidelines adopted for each age moniker; or the guidelines applied to each age rating are wildly out of line compared to contemporary standards that most parents would find acceptable for a PG or 14 content rating.”

Concerning the TV Oversight Monitoring Board’s Effectiveness at Addressing and Responding to Public Concerns:

“For several years, the PTC has publicly voiced concern about the secretive dealings and inherently flawed structure of the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board (TVOMB). After I was personally invited to attend a TVOMB meeting (that meeting having been brokered by former FCC Chairman Wheeler) in June of 2014, our concern for TVOMB morphed beyond dismay and into downright horror. What I witnessed literally shocked my conscience; and keep in mind that this is the organization tasked with the oversight of a system that parents are told to rely on every day in order to make informed choices about the media consumption of their children.

“At that meeting I played a video with a number of explicit content examples that had been rated either TV-PG or TV-14. One of the video clips was the aforementioned ‘stick your finger in my ass’ scene from a MTV program rated TV-14. I directly asked the Viacom employee who both approved the TV-14 rating and who sits on the TVOMB how such content could possibly be rated as appropriate for children. She shrugged, said that they had talked about it internally, and decided that the TV-14 rating was appropriate. The system is subjective, she said. But is not the TVOMB’s purpose to make the system more objective?

“In recent years the PTC has attempted to raise content rating concerns directly with TV industry executives and with the TVOMB. On a handful of occasions we have received a response; but most of those replies stated disagreement with our opinion that a rating was inaccurate. (For instance, in the Dating Naked program content described above, I personally communicated with the Viacom broadcast standards executive about the sexual content; but I was told that the program is about ‘relationships’ and was rated correctly, this despite the ubiquitous nudity and the graphic sexual situations depicted or discussed in the program.)

“There were three instances where our outreach resulted in a change to a content rating. Walking Deadwas increased from TV-14 to TV-MA; an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show featuring instructional use of sex vibrators was raised to TV-MA for repeat broadcasts after the initial airing was TV-14; and a basic cable network acknowledged their error in a TV-14 rating of an unedited version of the film Pulp Fiction. But most of the time our outreach efforts receive no response at all.

“If it is so difficult for the Parents Television Council, with its expertise and research resources, to engage in a meaningful dialogue with TVOMB and the networks, then it is virtually impracticable for an average parent to do so. Furthermore, the parents we speak with are unaware of the existence of TVOMB; unaware that ratings are applied by the networks themselves, as opposed to being applied by an independent body like the MPAA’s system; and unaware that it is up to them to offer any complaint if they feel a content rating is inaccurate.

Concerning what the PTC has learned about the TV Oversight Monitoring Board:

“The makeup of the 24-member TVOMB is, per paragraph 10 of the FCC’s Report and Order, to include ‘five non-industry members from the advocacy community.’ Based on a review of the TVOMB website, two of those five non-industry members are Call for Action and Entertainment Industries Council, both of which are industry-controlled and industry-funded organizations that have nothing to do with parents, families or advocacy about age-inappropriate content. This Board composition violates both the spirit and the letter of the FCC’s Report and Order. We have offered to participate as TVOMB members, but that request was swiftly dismissed. The only plausible reason for that dismissal is that we would demand improvement, rather than standing for the status quo.

“Other than the June 2014 meeting, we are unaware of TVOMB ever having actually met. They were forced to meet that day, and to include me in the meeting, in order to assuage the concerns of the FCC’s Chairman. But our sources suggest no such meetings otherwise have taken place.

“TVOMB historically undertakes consumer research polling when faced with intense political pressure. Contemporaneous to my meeting in June of 2014, TVOMB conducted and released research polling data; contemporaneous to my 2016 breakfast meeting in Los Angeles with Senator Dodd, TVOMB conducted and released research polling data. And contemporaneous to this current FCC review, TVOMB has entirely revamped its website. The only time TVOMB takes any action is when it needs political cover and in order to defend its status quo.

From the Conclusion

“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 prophylactic 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.

“Despite the growing availability and popularity of over-the-top streaming, most 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. A more accurate ratings system, and a more accountable system of oversight, would bring immense and immediate benefits to these families.

“For those families who are increasingly reliant on digital media platforms, and who have chosen to ‘cut the cord,’ the FCC must consider the longer-term value that a more accurate ratings system, and a more accountable system of oversight, will bring. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV, Roku, and a host of other OTT services will also need a robust and dependable content rating system so that parents can more effectively control the media consumption of their children. How the FCC responds to this congressional mandate to report on the current ratings system, and its oversight, is strategic for the future of digital media.”

Research, video clips of misrated TV content, and other background about the TV Content Ratings System can be found here:

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