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CongressLine - The TV Rating Game: Government vs Free Speech

By Carol M. Morrissey, Published on April 20, 1997

CongressLine

Carol M. Morrissey has been the Legislative Specialist for the Washington, D. C. office of Chicago's Sidley & Austin for 11 years. She is a lawyer and legislative expert who has also authored a Congressional update column for the last 4 years.

(Archived May 22, 1997)


TVY. TVG. TVMA. For those of you who have not noticed, the voluntary TV rating system went into effect on January 1. The ratings, prompted by a provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandating the broadcast industry to implement a voluntary rating system, were developed by an industry taskforce and are modeled on the age-based movie ratings which have been in place since 1968. Now that they have complied with their part of the bargain, they are weathering the storm of controversy generated by their creation.

The guidelines, accessible at the TV Parental Guidelines Homepage, and the Motion Picture Association site, are as follows: the first two categories apply to children only; TVY All Children - the program is appropriate for all children, TVY7 Directed to Older Children - is designed for children age 7 and up. The following four categories apply to programming designed for everyone; TVG General Audience - most parents would find it appropriate for all ages, TVPG Parental Guidance Suggested (sound familiar?) - the program contains some material unsuitable for younger children, TV14 Parents Strongly Cautioned - may contain material unsuitable for children under 14, and TVMA Mature Audience Only - the program is to be viewed by adults and is not suitable for those under 17. The above ratings appear once at the beginning of a program as a small icon flashed onscreen for 15 seconds.

Unfortunately for the industry, the ratings are that rarest of all species: a truly bipartisan issue. Members from both sides of the aisle are extremely unhappy with the guidelines and have shown their displeasure with a flurry of legislative activity. Several bills have been introduced to redress the wrong, one hearing was held in February, one in April and another is scheduled for mid-May. For this Congress, this constitutes ACTION.

The February 27 hearing held before the Senate Commerce Committee set the stage for the coming debate. The industry, represented by Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association and Edward Fritts of the National Association of Broadcasters, maintained that the ratings were more than adequate and should be given a chance, having only been in use for a few months.

The opposition forces, of which there are many, object to the system being based on age and not content, such as the level of violence, sex and profane language in a particular program. (HBO/Showtime has a content-based system which earned much high praise.) They also claim that the system is too vague, with approximately 70% of all programming earning a TV-PG rating. Although the industry gave no indication that they will rush to change the guidelines, they are open to certain suggestions, such as showing the icon longer and more often during the program. The newspaper industry also came under fire for not publishing the program ratings in their TV listings. The testimony is available at http://www.senate.gov/~commerce/ in an audio version.

Two very outspoken opponents to the guidelines are Sen. Hollings (D-SC) and Rep. Markey (D-MA). They have introduced companion measures (S. 363 and H.R. 910), entitled "The Children's Protection from Violent Programming Act." The operative effect of the legislation would be to either require the networks to provide more detailed information as to violent and sexual content or create a "safe harbor" time slot during which all violent programming would be shown. Sen. McCain, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, has indicated a willingness to press forward with this legislation to encourage the industry to take independent action.

Sen. Coats (R-IN) has introduced another content-based bill, (S. 409), "The Family Television Viewing Information and Empowerment Act." Although this legislation does not impose a rating system, it requires the networks to implement a v-chip compatible content rating system in order to obtain licenses for broadcast television and transitional spectrum access. The FCC would have power of review, but could not establish or require a particular system.

A different approach has been suggested by Sens. Brownback (R-KS), Lieberman (D-CT), DeWine (R-OH) and Kohl (D-WI) in their bills (S. 471 and S. 539), "The Television Improvement Act of 1997." The legislation would restore the antitrust exemption for the broadcast and cable industry, thus allowing them to collaborate on creating voluntary guidelines to reduce the incidence of violent, sexual and profane programming and to restore the "family viewing hours" which were utilized into the early 80's. They also hope that it would allow the networks to air more educational programming. The proponents of content ratings view this legislation as an attempt to delay the implementation of the guidelines they support.

Adding further fuel to the fire are the results of the recently released Television Violence Study, financed by the National Cable Television Association (http://www.widmeyer.com/tv/viewing/nctat/home.htm). The study found that violent programming is increasing and that the television rating system may have the "forbidden fruit effect" by enticing children to watch programs their parents do not wish them to view. For additional commentary, see the Center for Media Education site at http://tap.epn.org/cme/, the Family Education Network site at http://www.familyeducation.com/ and the Parent Teacher Association site at http://www.pta.org/issues/hlthwelf.htm.

Incidentally, two major broadcast stations are steadfastly refusing to participate in the new ratings and their arguments are evocative of the entire debate surrounding this issue. The president of PBS, Ervin Duggan, does not support the guidelines since they do not provide enough information and were developed without heeding the advice of parent/child advocates. On the other hand, the president of BET, Robert Johnson, believes the ratings are a violation of free speech and that the industry was coerced by Congress into developing them.

The battle lines have formed and the preliminary skirmishes have begun. It will be interesting to see how this scenario eventually plays out.