Once up a time, when your ride had that heavenly new-car smell of freshly turned pleather, you quickly familiarized yourself with the owners' manual, then tucked it away in that handy drop-down compartment where everything but gloves is stored.
For most parents and grandparents, the TV ratings system is a lot like that potentially useful manual: You don't think about it much, but you know it's there.
Of course, there are those who actually sit down and page through the owners' manual and refer to it when the need arises. To be generous, I'd say they represent about 1 percent of the population, the same people who read the warning tags on mattresses and scrupulously pore over every word in an online registration agreement before clicking "I Accept."
You may have a neighbor who fits this description, that guy who is out in the driveway every Saturday morning checking the air pressure in his steel-belted radials. He not only knows how many miles remain in the warranty, he actually has the paperwork filed away in a cabinet labeled "Tires, Warranty."
Anal Neighbor makes us feel inferior, and we hate him.
The rest of us aren't like that. We head off to Sears only after a passing motorist rolls down his window to say, "Hey, you! Those tires are smoother than a baby's behind!"
We mean well, but the complexities of 21st-century life prevent us from staying on top of things the way we should.
Our best intentions are to monitor what the kids are watching on TV in the next room, especially when a stray in-law weighs in with a critical word about television's potential to turn the brains of her darling grandchildren into cheese grits. Of course, Mother Dearest, we mean to check out every show the kiddies are sucking down like oxygen, but life and sometimes the dog get in the way.
You'll forgive me for sounding like a company shill, but the vast guidance resources of TV Guide can help keep your controlling and judgmental mother-in-law at bay. We pay a dedicated workforce of professional TV-watchers (great work if you can get it) to screen or otherwise review programs that your kids could view during any given programming week. Then, we get the word out in a number of ways: here at TVGuide.com, in TV Guide magazine, within the listings scroll on the TV Guide Channel, and within the interactive programming guide we provide to satellite and digital cable providers. (The most enjoyable part of our mission is to lead parents to what's really good on TV that week, with picks and highlights tailored to four distinct age groups: preschool, schoolkids, tweens and teens.)
TV Guide listings include the parental guidelines used by every network for just about every program, news and sports notwithstanding. The voluntary ratings system, in place since 1996, has been responsible for more head-scratching than lice. It's neither simple nor particularly intuitive, but unless and until something better comes along, we are stuck with it. It's written in the prose style of the guy who provided instructions for completing Form 1090.
Even though I cover family and kids' programming for a living, I find myself occasionally referring to the FCC's website (www.fcc.gov/parents/parent_guide.html) to refresh my understanding of the ratings labels and content indicators. I've got the URL bookmarked, and maybe you should, too, if you have kids around the house.
Though ours have flown the coop, we do have grandchildren who come to visit. If we let her, Hope, the 14-year-old, would sit slack-jawed in front of the set until nuclear winter set in. But when she's with us we try to curb her viewing hours and keep an eye on the content, making sure that what she's watching is age-appropriate and suitable for consumption in a household where people only raise their voices if their hair is on fire. She knows we don't abide gratuitous violence, TV preachers with their hands out, networks whose sole purpose is to sell products, syndicated daytime shows with bouncers on stage, and anything rated TV-MA, which is programming meant only for mature audiences.
This includes much of what airs on Cinemax after 11 pm, when we are asleep and Hope is not.
Of course, we could lock or block out that channel or any shows rated TV-MA by using the mechanisms built into our cable box and guided by our remote. But at our house, the instructions for doing so are probably where I put the tire warranty, which is to say, in the Land of the Lost Socks.
One could always phone the cable company for assistance, if one were prepared to have one's ear bloom like cauliflower. My cable company happens to rhyme with "bombast," and at the risk of having them coming out in the dark of night to clip my wires, I'd have to say that once you get them on the line they're mighty helpful. Of course, sometimes I could shave, brush my teeth, shine my shoes and steam out the wrinkles in my blue serge suit in the time that it takes to get an answer. (It leads a man to being well-groomed, though.)
We don't use the lock/block functions or the V-chip technology built into our set, but millions do. Instead, we use a method passed down through the millennia: We line up our eyes with Hope's and slowly explain what's acceptable and what's not. It's like hypnosis, but without the pocket watch.
Though we don't have a perfect record with this, we tend to watch programs rated TV-14 along with her. Depending on the series, these programs can contain coarse language and sexual situations. It's hard to find shows aimed at teens that don't have such content, but that doesn't mean we have to watch them.
We don't mind talking about sex to our granddaughter, but we want to do it on our own terms, not when it's forced upon us by TV. And so I keep an eye on the screen during the opening moments of a program to know what I'm in for: If I see TV-14, I've been sufficiently warned.
The ratings appear in the corner of the screen during the first 15 seconds of a program, about as much time as it takes for Hope to commandeer the couch.
Ah, but I have the remote.... And any day now I'm going to figure out how to use it.
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