Those big, clunky on-screen bugs pop up for a few seconds at the start of every TV show, often serving up a hefty dose of alphabet soup: TV-MA-L for South Park, TV-PG-L for Celebrity Apprentice, TV-PG-DL for GCB and TV-14-D-L-S-V for Bones. But if you're like most TV viewers, you probably pay no attention to TV's content ratings system, or even know what those letters stand for.
It's been 15 years since the broadcast and cable networks launched TV's parental guidance ratings system under heavy pressure from the government and special interest groups. The ratings themselves were "voluntary," but came after the landmark 1996 Telecommunications Act required all TV sets to include a "V-Chip" device that could block out programming unsuitable for children.
"I still stand by and support the concept of the ratings," says The Hub president/CEO Margaret Loesch, who was a part of the task force that created the ratings. "Having said that, I think the language on TV has evolved and changed, and I don't know that our ratings quite know what to do with that."
For most folks, the ratings bugs are just one more thing on an already cluttered TV screen. According to a 2007 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 43 percent of respondents who had purchased a V-Chip-equipped TV since 2000 even knew of the technology, and just 16 percent of parents said they utilized it. The study also found that few viewers understood that "V" stands for "violence," "S" is "sex" and "D" means "suggestive dialogue." Even more comical, a percentage of parents polled thought "FV" — which warns of "fantasy violence" on kids' shows like Cartoon Network's Ben 10 — is an abbreviation for "family viewing." Oops.
Critics are mixed on how effective the system has been. Children Now national policy director Jeff McIntyre gives "50/50" marks to the ratings. "There are a lot of concerns about how the ratings are implemented and significant concerns about the consistency of the ratings," he says. "A show on CBS will have different ratings than a similar one on NBC, or shows in syndication have different ratings."
It's that kind of confusion that led Congress to pass the Child Safe Viewing Act in 2007, asking the FCC to examine the "parental empowerment tools" on the market, including the V-Chip. But so far there haven't been any changes. "There is an incredible backlog of impending children's issues at the FCC," McIntyre says. "There's not a whole lot of political will to move in these areas. Priorities are different right now, everyone's focused on broadband and infrastructure."
The TV system was loosely based on the much older movie rating system, mostly because late entertainment industry lobbyist Jack Valenti oversaw the birth of both systems. Film ratings continue to stir controversy and charges of censorship (as chronicled in the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated).
Just last month, the Motion Picture Association of America came under fire by activists after The Weinstein Company film Bully, which focuses on the bullying epidemic among teens, was slapped with an R rating. Weinstein ultimately decided to release the movie without a rating, and movie chain AMC Theatres agreed to admit teens as long as they bring along a permission slip signed by their parent or guardian. (Most theater chains normally treat unrated movies as NC-17 and ban anyone who's not an adult.)
"The movie ratings system tends to get a little more press and social awareness, and tends to get integrated as a marketing mechanism," McIntyre says. But in comparison, TV content ratings rarely, if ever, get a rise out of producers or viewers. That's mostly because the TV networks rate themselves, via their internal standards and practices departments. Plus, in the movie world, a rating can impact box office, as many theater chains won't show unrated or NC-17 movies, and are strict about not letting kids into R-rated features.
"We could rate a show TV-MA [mature audiences only] and it's still going on the air, even if the affiliates don't like it," says a network exec. "There's no crossing guard in TV. If a 12-year-old watches a TV-MA show on TV, that's on the parents." There is an oversight board that serves as a clearinghouse for TV content ratings issues, but McIntyre says it's still difficult to figure out how to dispute ratings. "It's such a broad TV rating system, there's not a lot of clarity who you can go to if you have a complaint," he says.
That self-regulation has never gone over well with groups like the Coalition for Independent Ratings, a non-profit group that looks to develop "media content ratings systems that are independent from media content producers." That group is also concerned as viewers watch more programming on laptops, tablets and smartphones, which don't have V-Chips. Another group has suggested that commercials also be rated.
In the beginning, the networks held back from giving themselves too many TV-14 ratings (unsuitable for kids under 14), and pretty much avoided TV-MA all together. Even a show like Friends was given a TV-PG (parental guidance) rating. But as the stigma went away, TV-MA became commonplace on basic cable (South Park, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Justified) and pay TV, where virtually everything on HBO and Showtime is given that rating. Meanwhile, news programming continues to go unrated.
One complaint that remains is an inconsistency in ratings from network to network. Fox gives American Idol a TV-PG-D-L rating (meaning suggestive dialogue and language), while NBC gives The Voice a TV-PG-L. But is there really any difference between the shows' content? And while Fox's New Girl and ABC's Happy Endings seem tonally similar, New Girl gets a TV-14-D-L-V (suggestive dialogue, language and violence), while Happy Endings is rated TV-PG. (Ratings do vary from episode to episode.)
Critics had feared that the content ratings might give networks license to get dirtier, and McIntyre believes that early on, a handful of shows took advantage of the system to prove how "edgy" they were. The pilot to CBS' 1997 Steven Bochco drama Brooklyn South earned a bit of notoriety for being the first broadcast program to land a TV-MA, but that show didn't last long. Since then, Loesch says she doesn't think "there was any real purposeful effort to use ratings as a shield to get away with anything. There were a lot of naysayers and I think a lot of their predictions have never borne out to be true."
Content ratings may have also lost a bit of relevancy as more kid-targeted programming and channels arrived. Parents don't have to worry about their kid catching Sons of Anarchy on FX; they're busy watching Disney Channel or Nickelodeon series. "There's so much more being produced for kids today than 15 years ago," Loesch says. Kids shows are currently given three ratings — TV-Y (all children), TV-Y7 (older kids) and TV-Y7-FV (fantasy violence). With the explosion in more kinds of children's TV, Loesch says, "I do think maybe it's time to re-examine and see if we need to refine them a bit. Sometimes I have our broadcast standards coming to me, and they're struggling with where to categorize something."
Loesch adds that even though she regularly hears from parents concerned over language and the sexualization of young girls in TV, that doesn't extend to the content ratings. "To tell you the truth I don't hear anything about the TV ratings," she says. "It's not a part of the conversation. The content itself is."
Meanwhile, Loesch and McIntyre both admit they're a bit surprised that TV content hasn't become a factor — yet — in this year's presidential campaign. Taking on TV has long been seen as an easy way to score a few political points with voters. Loesch believes that's because there are many other pressing issues keeping candidates preoccupied: "I've been waiting for someone to step up and say, 'Hey, you know, TV has got a lot of violence in it,' but there has been nothing. There are so many other issues that are taking priority over content. And we've got a generation of parents who grew up on TV, and they're less critical of the varying eclectic content that's available." McIntyre adds that there's much more focus these days on content labels in food manufacturing. Chew on that.