Ratings for Television Programs

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The Telecommunications Act of 1996 contained a "Parental Choice in Television Programming" provision designed to permit parents greater control over the content seen on their home televisions. This provision passed in response to the accumulating evidence that television violence and other types of programming can have profound negative effects on the mental health of children, and in response to parental concerns about the increasingly violent and sexual content of television. The act mandated that within a specified time of its passage, new televisions be manufactured with a "V-chip," which would allow parents to block objectionable content on the basis of the rating of a program. It also recommended that the television industry develop a voluntary rating system that would be applied to television programs and be readable by the V-chip technology. Early in 1996, shortly after passage of the act, entertainment industry executives formed a Ratings Implementation Group and agreed to develop a rating system. The new system was released to the public on December 19, 1996, and began being implemented in January 1997.

The rating system is designed to be applied to all programming with the exception of news and sports programs. In addition to being read by the V-chip, the rating of a program (selected by thatprogram's producers or distributors) is displayed visually in the upper left-hand corner of the television screen for the first few seconds of a program. Many newspaper programming guides and television schedules also publish the ratings in their listings.

The television rating system is referred to as the "TV Parental Guidelines," and in its initial form, it was based on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings for theatrical movies that have been in use since the late 1960s. The MPAA ratings contain four major levels based on the recommended age for viewing a movie: "G: General Audiences," "PG: Parental Guidance Suggested," "PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned," and "R: Restricted." The original TV Parental Guidelines had four levels similar to the MPAA ratings for programs not specifically directed to a child audience. They were "TV-G: General Audience," "TV-PG: Parental Guidance Suggested,""TV-14: Parents Strongly Cautioned," and "TVMA: Mature Audiences Only." In addition, the system included two rating levels for programs designed for children: "TV-Y: All Children," and "TV-Y7: Directed to Older Children." Like the MPAA ratings, these ratings gave guidelines regarding the age of the child who should be permitted to see a program but did not provide specific information about its content.

The TV Parental Guidelines were controversial even before the official release of the system. Headed by MPAA President Jack Valenti, the Ratings Implementation Group had engaged in a public process of soliciting advice from child advocacy organizations such as the National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), public health organizations such as the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychological Association (APA), and academic researchers from a variety of universities. Most of the groups and individuals consulted advocated a program labeling system that indicates the content of a program rather than simply providing age recommendations. Many groups advocated modeling the television rating system after the system that is available on the premium cable channels HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime. The premium channel system indicates the level of sex, violence, and coarse language in a program with letters, such as, "MV: Mild Violence," "AL: Adult Language," and "SC: Strong Sexual Content."

Much of the controversy over the original television rating system was based on the findings of research regarding three issues: (1) the types of ratings that parents preferred, (2) the ability of different types of systems to communicate the content of programs, and (3) the effects of different types of rating systems on the interest of children in programs.

Research Relevant to the Television Ratings Controversy

The major disagreement between the Ratings Implementation Group and the majority of public health and child advocacy organizations related to whether the ratings should suggest the appropriate age for viewing a program (age-based ratings) or specify the type and level of content contained in the program (content-based ratings). Several national surveys conducted between August 1996 and March 1997 reported that parents overwhelmingly preferred content-based ratings for television over age-based ratings. Five out of six national surveys conducted during this period showed majorities ranging from 62 percent to 80 percent favoring content-based ratings. The one survey that showed a majority (54%) in favor of an age-based system was commissioned by the Ratings Implementation Group itself and was released on the day the rating system was introduced.


Experiments are used when a researcher wants to observe effects under highly controlled conditions. For example, researchers for the National Television Violence Study (NTVS) conducted an experiment when they wanted to know whether adding a rating to a television program or movie would have an effect on the desire of children to see it. Rather than asking people their opinions regarding whether or not something would affect them, experimenters prefer to put people in a controlled situation, manipulate one thing while leaving everything else constant, and then observe whether what they manipulated made a difference.

In Year 2 of the NTVS, for example, researchers asked a group of 374 children between five and fifteen years of age to look at a booklet describing different programs and movies and to indicate how much they wanted to see each one. To increase the chances that they would give their sincere responses, children were told they would remain anonymous and they were led to believe that their opinions would count as votes influencing the program they would actually get to see. All the books contained the same program names and brief descriptions. However, unknown to the children, the same program was given different ratings in different booklets. For example, for one movie title and description, the effect of movie ratings was tested. In some booklets, at random, the plot description was followed by a rating of G; in others, it was followed by PG, PG-13, or R; and in some, there was no rating at all. All children indicated how much they wanted to see the movie on a scale ranging from "hate to see it" to "love to see it." Because everything was kept constant except the rating of the movie, the researchers could determine whether the rating, in and of itself, made a significant difference. In this case, the rating of a movie did have a strong effect, especially among the older children tested: Children wanted to see the movie significantly more when it was rated PG-13 or R than when it was rated G.

Experiments work best when the response being observed is short-term rather than of long duration. Moreover, it is often challenging to study controversial behaviors, such as violence, experimentally. One cannot ethically bring children into the laboratory to study the effects of media violence and encourage them to get into fights with each other. For this reason, experiments on media violence often use measures that do not look like violence, but are related to violence. For example, some violence studies ask children to fill out a questionnaire indicating how right or wrong it is to hit or kick another child, and the researchers compare children who have just witnessed violence on TV to those who have not. Others studies use "aggression machines," and children are led to believe that by pushing a button they are delivering painful stimulation to another person in another room. (This is actually not true). Others allow people to inflict a nonviolent negative outcome on another person, such as giving a negative evaluation with the expectation that it will affect that person's chances to get a job. The important things to remember in evaluating experimental procedures is whether the conditions are adequately controlled, whether participants are assigned to the different conditions at random, whether the situation created is plausible to the research participant, and whether the outcome measure is psychologically relevant to the attitude or behavior of interest.

One reason that parents indicated a preference for a content-based system was that parents make distinctions between sex versus violence versus other types of content when they express concerns about the effect of television programs on their children. During the period in which the new rating system was being developed, researchers for the National Television Violence Study (NTVS), an independent monitoring project funded by the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), were exploring how the different MPAA ratings coincided with different forms of content in movies. Using a large, representative sample of television programming, the researchers investigated movies that were shown with both an MPAA rating and the premium channel content codes applied by the channel presenting the movie. For example, they explored the proportion of movies rated PG that contained different types of content. In their analysis for NTVS Year 1 (released in early 1996), 22 percent of the PG-rated movies had neither sex nor violence, but only adult language. Another 22 percent had adult language and sex, and 28 percent had adult language and violence. A separate study, submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in April 1997 as part of comments on the rating system of the industry, involved all movies rated by the MPAA during the years 1995 and 1996 according to the Motion Picture Ratings Directory of the MPAA. The findings indicated that more than one-fourth of movies rated PG were so classified as a function of coarse language only and another 18 percent had neither sex, nor violence, nor coarse language.

Extrapolating from these findings, critics argued that the content of a program rated TV-PG would be highly unpredictable—parents would not know whether it contained content they considered harmful and they thus would not be able to decide whether they should shield their child from it or not.

A third area of research relevant to the television ratings dealt with the effect of ratings on the desire of children to see programs. A major concern was whether parental advisories and ratings would have their intended effect or whether they would "boomerang," making the content seem more interesting and exciting and attract a larger child audience.

The first year of the NTVS research (released early in 1996) showed that the MPAA ratings of PG-13 and R increased interest in a movie, especially for boys and for young adolescents in general. The second year of the NTVS research (released in March 1997) subjected eight rating systems to the same test. Included in the systems tested were the MPAA ratings and three content-based systems: the violence codes used by the premium cable channels HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax ("MV: Mild Violence," "V: Violence," and "GV: Graphic Violence"); the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) ratings used for video games ("Violence: Creatures Killed," "Violence: Humans Killed," "Violence: Humans Injured or Killed, Blood and Gore," and "Violence: Wanton and Gratuitous Violence"); and the violence ratings used in Canada in conjunction with early implementation of the V-chip ("Comedic Violence," "Mild Violence," "Brief Violence," "Violence," and "Graphic Violence").

The findings revealed that most of the rating and labeling systems did not significantly affect the interest of children. The only rating system to produce the so-called forbidden-fruit effect was the age-based MPAA system. For the older children (10 to 15 years of age) participating in the experiment, the more restrictive ratings of PG-13 and R increased the attractiveness of a program, and the lowest rating, G, decreased it. Moreover, children who were more aggressive and those who liked to watch television the most were the most likely to have their interest stimulated by the restrictive MPAA ratings.

Independently conducted research published in 1996 by Brad Bushman and his associates confirmed that restrictive warning labels make a program seem more enticing than labels that simply describe violent content. In three experiments, Bushman found that warning labels consistently increased the selection of violent programs and movies by both children and adults, but that violence labels did not.

In summary, the research findings reported around the time of the initial launch of the TV Parental Guidelines were uniformly unflattering to the new system: They showed that parents overwhelmingly preferred content-based labels over age guidelines; that age-based ratings are ambiguous as to the content contained in a program; and that restrictive, age-based ratings are more likely than content labels to entice children to violent programming.

Public Criticism and the Revised System

The critics of the TV Parental Guidelines were given several public forums in which to express their concerns. The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on February 27, 1997, less than two months after the system began being applied. In addition to criticizing the rating system itself, several child advocates decried the fact that intense violence, crude sexual situations, and coarse language were quite common in prime-time programs that carried the TV-PG rating. The National Television Violence Study released its Year 2 report in March 1997, and press coverage of those findings publicized the possibility that the age-based ratings might be attracting more children than they were protecting. The FCC solicited comments on the acceptability of the system in April of that year, with most comments from the general public being critical of the new system. In May, the television industry held a town hall meeting in Peoria, Illinois, that was televised on C-SPAN. The participants in this forum were parents who were selected at random, and again the critics of the rating system remained more vocal and more numerous than the defenders. By this time, several members of Congress had begun threatening further legislation regarding television content if the television industry did not modify the system. By the beginning of the summer, the industry group had agreed to negotiate a compromise with representatives of the child advocacy organizations, and in July 1997, the groups released a compromise system, which added content indicators to the age-based guidelines.

In the revised system, the ratings of TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA could be supplemented by any or all of the following content indicators: V for violent content, L for coarse language, S for sexual content, and D for sexual dialogue or innuendo. In addition, for programs aimed at older children (designated with a TV-Y7), the supplemental indicator of FV for "fantasy violence" was added to indicate programs in which the violence may be "more intense or more combative." The industry group also agreed to add five nonindustry representatives from the advocacy community to the Oversight Monitoring Board for the guidelines. All but two networks agreed to use the revised system: NBC maintained the original TV Parental Guidelines without the addition of content letters, and Black Entertainment Television (BET), which had not adopted the original system, continued to refuse to rate its programs at all.

Research conducted after the revised TV Parental Guidelines were implemented showed that although parents liked the idea of television ratings, the revised system was poorly understood. For example, in a national survey of parents conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 1999, one and one-half years after the revised system was put in place, only 3 percent of parents knew that the content letters "FV" stood for "fantasy violence" and only 2 percent knew that "D" stood for "suggestive or sexual dialogue." Research also showed that although most networks were quick to adopt the initial TV Parental Guidelines, the revised system did not provide a consistent correspondence between the content letters and the presence of sex, violence, or coarse language in programs.

As the deadline of January 2000 was reached for all new televisions with a diagonal screen size of thirteen inches or larger to be produced with a V-chip, the FCC and child advocacy groups committed themselves to making greater efforts to publicize the V-chip and the revised rating system.

See also:National Television Violence Study;Ratings for Movies; Ratings for Video Games, Software, and the Internet; Sex and the Media; Telecommunications Act of 1996; V-Chip; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


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Cantor, Joanne. (1998). " Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

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Center for Communication and Social Policy.(1997-1998). National Television Violence Study Executive Summary, Vols. 2 and 3. Community and Organization Research Institute (CORI). Santa Barbara: University of California.

Federal Communications Commission. (2000). "V-Chip Homepage." <http://www.fcc.gov/vchip>.

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Kunkel, Dale; Farinola, Wendy J. M.; Cope, Kirstie M.;Donnerstein, Edward.; Biely, Erica; and Zwarun, Lara. (1998). Rating the Ratings: One Year Out; An Assessment of the Television Industry's Use of V-Chip Ratings. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Motion Picture Rating Directory. (1997). Encino, CA:Classification and Rating Administration.

Price, Monroe E., ed. (1998). The V-Chip Debate: Content Filtering from Television to the Internet. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Joanne Cantor