Congress Steps Into Content-Ratings Mess


What started 36 years ago as a letter-based system to help adults determine which movies their children could watch has been successful enough to be extended to video games and television.

But now Congress wants to help fix a system many parents call vague and confusing, or ignore altogether. For example: What does “T” or “eC” mean? Which program contains harsher content, the one rated “E” or “M?” What should parents do when “FV” appears on their screen?

“I look at that and I immediately think 'Family Viewing’ instead of 'Fantasy Violence,’ as it is intended,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, said last Tuesday.

His panel heard testimony on media-ratings effectiveness from industry experts, including the new president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Dan Glickman, and his predecessor, Jack Valenti.

Statistics presented by Patti Miller, director of Children Now, showed that many parents (75%) use the movie-ratings system, but use of the music and video-game advisories is weaker.

“Many parents still have not heard of the TV ratings; one in five say that they have never even heard of them, and many parents don’t recognize the content-based TV ratings,” she testified. Worse, 40% of parents believe ratings inaccurately reflect content, she said.

David Kinney, president of PSVratings Inc., testified, “Parents do not want to be told what the industry thinks is appropriate for their children. We believe that the entertainment industry (should) be able to express themselves anyway they see fit.”

Acknowledging that sex sells at the hands of the persuasive media, Kinney said the system must balance freedom of expression and freedom of information.

But Valenti countered that “sex and violence doesn’t necessarily sell,” pointing out Finding Nemo was one of the all-time highest-grossing films.

“Every movie is different,” Valenti said. “Every one of these systems that they’re talking about is subjective. The Supreme Court to this very hour, Mr. Chairman, is unable to define pornography or obscenity.”

Various solutions were put on the table to consider. Dr. Kimberly M. Thompson, director of Harvard University’s Kids Risk Project, backed a uniform and more easily deciphered ratings system for all forms of media.

Miller advocated more descriptive ratings, and suggested displaying ratings throughout a show, instead of just in its first 15 seconds.

States News Service