When it comes to the voluntary TV ratings system that’s been in effect since January 1, both broadcast networks and cable channels are feeling damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. That’s because the system, intended to help parents judge the content of shows, has met with mixed results.
A recent research study argues that the new ratings attract, rather than discourage, the viewing of undesirable programs by kids. And it’s even created a buzzword for the phenomenon: ‘forbidden fruit syndrome.’ The two-year National Television Violence Study, headed up by Joanne Cantor, professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin, tested 374 children between the ages of five and 15 from three public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Children were given booklets describing eight television programs and movies, and were asked to indicate how much they wanted to see each one. The study tested the Motion Picture Association of America ratings and two other advisory warnings ‘parental discretion advised’ and ‘viewer discretion advised’ with and without the phrase ‘contains some violent content.’ It concluded that ‘the ratings have the undesirable effect of stimulating some children’s interest in restricted programming.’
As well, many daily newspapers have failed to incorporate the ratings into their TV listings, thus public awareness appears to be low. This despite the fact that the guidelines are displayed in the upper left-hand corner of television screens at the beginning of all programs, except news and sports.
Finally, according a number of network spokespersons, parental reaction has been lukewarm with few calls coming in to the networks regarding the system, pro or con.
All of this comes as a surprise to the kids television industry, since the system, which represented the first time that television programs had ever been rated, was launched with high hopes. At the time, surveys suggested that 72 percent of parents favored having the networks and cable channels be responsible for applying the guidelines to specific programs. And the ratings were formulated with the participation of TV leaders and went into effect with broad industry-wide support.
In light of these results, what should become of the ratings system?
In her public statements, Cantor has used the findings of the National Television Violence Study as a springboard to question the validity of the networks rating their own shows, suggesting, for example, that ratings could be reviewed by an appeal board consisting of parents and child development experts.
USA Networks founder, chairman and CEO Kay Koplovitz defends the system against more detailed ratings advocated by detractors.
Other network and industry spokespersons view the study authors as misguided in their conclusions. ‘Critics of ratings are really critics of TV content. They want to be a national nanny,’ says ABC spokesperson Julie Hoover. ‘We make mistakes and there are errors in judgment. But to deny that the networks are responsible programmers is ridiculous.’