TV's New Ratings Game

This article first appeared in The Ligourian magazine, October, 1996

How the V-chip works and its challenge for parent education.

For dozens of years, TV executives have told us that one thing determines the selection of what airs on television: ratings.

For years, they meant the Neilsen ratings, the system of counting how many people of specific ages and income levels are watching each TV show at any one time. Knowing the viewing ratings of each program was important because the more people who watch from the most desirable audiences, the greater the dollar value per minute of commercial time the networks or stations could charge.

That's how television in the U.S. worked. Until now.

1996 may be remembered not only as the year the New York Yankees came from behind and won the World Series but also for the year United States television executives finally agreed to create a content ratings system, a system that would allow viewers, especially parents, to evaluate the message or content of a television program in order to determine whether they wanted a program to come into their home — or not. Some people think both events of 1996 were miracles.

How did the ratings decision evolve? And will it turn out to be a miracle afterall? As the time draws near for U.S. television to introduce its new ratings system to the viewing public, there are a number of issues to keep in mind.

In recent years, as television has more and more "pushed the envelope" in terms of violence, sex and language (in the relentless quest for the highest number of viewers in order to get the highest price for each commercial minute), parents and concerned adults have challenged television programmers to recognize and accept that some programs are just not suitable for children to view. In such a case, whose responsibility is it to keep children away from such material — the programmers? Or parents?

Although for 40 years, there's been a "circle of blame" on this issue, with each side blaming the other for the problem — and for finding the solution — clearly there should be responsibility on both sides. Television is a legal and legitimate business. Whether we like our consumer economy or not, as a society we've set up television to be in the business of attracting the most viewers it can. Very few of us, in reality, would return to a pre-TV world which would also be a world without microwave ovens, air conditioning or instant communication around the globe bringing us events such as the Olympics or the news live from wherever it's happening.

On the other hand, we also know from common sense that children are our precious future. As adults, our responsibility is to see that the next generations grow up healthy and safe — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Television researcher Dr. George Gerbner calls television and media a "cultural environment" which requires as much careful tending by adult society as the ozone layer, the oceans, the animals or forests.

But parents can no more individually control their children's culture than they can be responsible solely for the air their children breathe. Parents count on the efforts of established society — not only government but education, religion, business and industry — to provide a safe foundation, a "common good" upon which they can solidly build their family life.

With these two world views heading for a collision course in the U.S., Congress, in 1991, initiated another round of hearings about what to do especially in regard to the impact and influence of television violence.

As violence became a public health issue in American society, more and more questions were raised about how media messages "normalize" and "glamorize" violence as a solution to human conflict. Although researchers are clear to say that watching violence does not, per se, cause most people to commit a crime or harm someone, (or we'd all be murderers because we've all seen murders on TV or in the movies), significant members of the research community, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and many others, report that watching thousands of hours of entertainment violence, especially in the formative years of life, can have several long-lasting effects:

    • it can lead to a readiness to resort to use force to solve arguments or conflicts, e.g. to "bully" others into subservience as well as to use weapons;
    • it can increase fear of becoming a victim, creating suspicion and distrust in society as well as increasing self-protective behaviors such as buying guard dogs or guns.
    • it can lead to desensitization to violence, callousness toward those who are hurt or in need as well as a general disrespect for human life.

There can never be a totally "violent-free" media because there is evil in the world and human nature has its shadow side. Some people will do bad things to others. Their deeds will be reported in the news and re-enacted in the dramas of both high art and popular culture.

But especially for parents and teachers whose kindergarteners ceaselessly play Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on the playground — until someone gets hurt -— the issue of television's influence on children's behavior is no longer questioned. Children learn by imitation. And although the concept of free speech is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and no one wants to overtly censor the media as may be done in other countries, clearly public opinion is demanding that something be done for children.

Among the solutions suggested to Congress was the idea of a "v-chip," an electronic computer chip that could be installed in television sets to help viewers select the levels of violence, sex or profanity that they would allow to come into their home. Although the "v-chip" was hotly debated, on February 9, President Bill Clinton signed into law the 1996 Telecommunications Act which included a provision that requires the installation of V-chip technology in all newly-manufactured TV sets 13-inches or larger by 1998.

How does it work?

The v-chip is a technology that demands responsibility on both sides of the television screen. On the production side, it requires that producers create a message or content ratings scale so that each TV program can be assigned an electronic code to be sent out over the air or through the cable system along with the program. At the receiving end, the television v-chip mechanism can be set to accept certain codes and reject all others, leaving only a blank blue screen.

Although the technology itself is simple enough, the implementation of a ratings scale to go with it opens a proverbial can of worms. What organization or group of individuals could possibly set a universal ratings scale for every TV show on every channel 24-hours a day for every viewer of every age in all parts of the country? Such a task is clearly impossible. But the Telecommunications Act requires that some system be devised within one year.

Some look to the familiar G, PG, PG-13, R movie ratings system adopted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) that many parents are already familiar with. Why not just apply this system to TV?

In an article in Media&Values magazine titled, "What's Wrong with the Ratings?" Barbara Wilson, PhD, a child psychologist and associate professor in communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara, worries that such a transfer would reproduce three major flaws she sees in the movie code system:

First, the MPAA ratings system divides viewers into only three broad age ranges: 0-13, 13-17 and over 17. But as every parent knows, a preschool child reacts to almost everything differently than a 12-year old. For television, especially, in which programs are targeted to children of specific ages, some provision needs to be made for a more finely tuned system, for example, 2 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13-17.

Secondly, the MPAA system assumes that film content is more problematic for younger than for older children. But developmental psychology indicates that certain media depictions, such as teenage characters who engage in realistic aggression, could be more problematic for an older child who is typically engaged in searching for role models for future adult behavior.

Thirdly, the movie ratings focus promarily on the amount of violence and its explicitness, while ignoring the context of violence. For example, are the consequences shown or not? Is it played for humor? Is the perpetrator the hero or the villain? There are significant differences between the message of a movie like Schindler's List about the Holocaust and one starring Arnold Schwarzeneger playing a "hero" who blows away dozens of people with a machine gun and walks over the bodies with a smart remark leading the audience to laugh.

In short, what's wrong with the MPAA ratings system, according to Dr. Wilson, is that movies are primarily rated "by what parents would find offensive rather than what may be harmful to children." Sexual scenes, for example, automatically rate an "R" but movies with no sex but a lot of violence can get a PG-13. "There is a lot of research," she adds, "to underscore that the movie ratings ought to take media violence more into account than they do." And such a system would be inadequate if transferred to television where, rather than explicit sexual acts, sex talk and especially sexual innuendo has become a major prime-time problem.

The advantages of the MPAA-type system is that it is fairly simple and most parents are familiar with it. Those who are currently working on the new ratings system, according to Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for Communication Policy at University of California/Los Angeles and principle investigator of the networks' television violence monitoring project, will probably adopt some version of the MPAA code with modifications for different ages of children, most probably: pre-schoolers, elementary age children, pre-teens and teen-agers.

However, at a recent conference sponsored by the Center for Media Literacy, Cole pointed out that regardless of the ratings system devised, it will probably take a generation to implement it universally in the U.S. "Only new sets will be required to have the V-chip," he explained, "and with the reliability of TV sets manufactured today, many homes have sets that are 10, 15, even 20 years old." And older sets are often the ones in children's bedrooms. The price of retrofitting an old TV with the v-chip would hardly be cost-effective.

Which brings us full circle to the ultimate issue in this 40-year controversy: Who will use the system and will children actually benefit from the legislation?

Clearly, children will not benefit unless the adults in their lives recognize the importance of each child's "cultural environment" and establish concrete daily routines to make it as positive as possible. The home is first and foremost where children learn to use TV. Throughout childhood and adolescence, much of the time that young viewers spend with TV continues to be in the home- — in their home as well as their friends' homes. The viewing environment influences what children view, where and when they view, with whom they view and the ways in which they interpret what they see.

What is important about this legislation, I believe, is not so much the required installation of the technology but rather the opportunity to create a major national conversation about why what children watch matters.

It's not that these conversations have not been going on in U.S. society at all. Organizations like Action for Children's Television spoke up loudly in the 1970's. But for decades, founder Peggy Charren was a voice in the wilderness. And research shows that even now, most parents do not limit their children's total viewing time and rarely restrict their viewing of violent content, including cartoons and crime shows on broadcast TV and adult-oriented fare on cable. The few that do are often dismissed as naive or treated like ogres spoiling a good time.

As the v-chip becomes a reality instead of just a possibility, there will be books, articles in newspapers and magazines and programs on television about how to select appropriate media for different age children. Schools and PTAs and libraries and community centers should start planning now to organize workshops, discussion groups and conferences to explore the impact of media in family life. It will provide a golden opportunity to educate millions of parents (as well as grandparents and caregivers and even young couples about to be married) and break the myth created in the early days of TV that television is just "mindless entertainment." It's not and never was.

Finally we're "getting it." And that's a miracle.

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).