TV rating system onlycomplicates the issues

In recent years, it has become popular political sport to bash television and the media for exposing children to sex, violence and profanity. During last year’s presidential campaign, both President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich joined in the criticism, supporting a television rating system. Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the idea to create a rating system became a reality. But the new TV ratings system, introduced this month, amounts to nothing but a false sense of security.
With the new television system — similar to the movie rating system — many parents feel they can rest easy. But the system does nothing so resolve its supporters’ real concern: the so-called objectionable content of television. Labeling television programs does not in any way change the content of television. More importantly, it does not indicate why the content deserves a specific rating.
The system is composed of six complicated and obscure categories. There are three categories designated for children alone, based on age level. The ratings discern between maturity levels by stating, for example, a television show is acceptable for children over seven (TV-7) because it contains “some violence or other material unsuitable for children under seven.” But the ratings do not explain what qualifies for “some” violence nor do they say what constitutes “unsuitable” material. A group that rates a program while leaving the rating criteria undefined wields unquestionable power over highly sensitive, subjective decisions.
The largest flaw of the system lies in who rates the programs. Unlike movie ratings, which are conducted by the autonomous Motion Picture Association of America, the individual TV networks are given the authority to rate their own programs. This amounts to incredible inconsistency when considering, for example, that “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Night with David Letterman” received different ratings by their respective networks though they contain almost identical content.
While many people were impressed that the networks “voluntarily” agreed to rate their own programs, they don’t deserve too much credit. The Telecom Act includes a provision that if the networks did not self-regulate their own ratings within one year, the federal government would assume the role. The small type in the law obscures a large, formidable shadow the federal government has cast upon this private issue. The idea of a choice between the federal government and Hollywood to create and implement a rating system is like choosing between Ted Kennedy and Robert Downey Jr. to give you a ride home.
In the end, any federally prescribed rating system raises serious questions about the ability of any authority to perform this role. Ultimately, any rating system will be debatable because it’s a subjective judgement; what is determined as objectionable content depends on the individual. The new TV rating system may succeed in placing labels on programs to satisfy parents’ concerns, but it cannot accurately tell individuals why a particular show may be unsuitable. The only reliable rating system is still personal discretion.