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March 17, 1996

TV Turns to an Era of Self-Control


In This Article
  • How Do You Rate 1,640 Hours a Day?
  • The Economic Costs, and the Political
  • Where the Networks and Cable Diverse
  • Remembering the Children

    It is September 1998, and in flickering family rooms around the country, viewers are tuning in for their first glimpse of the new television season. Situation comedies dominate the prime-time schedules of the six networks, but there is bold drama as well. "N.Y.P.D. Blue," in its sixth season on ABC, is more provocative than ever.

    Parents can rest easy because their television sets have the V-chip, which makes it possible to prevent children from seeing shows that carry a rating denoting violence or sexual content.

    And despite the cries of Hollywood's Cassandras, the rating system has not destroyed television but has burnished its new golden age, which some critics say started a few years back. As the American film industry did after adopting a ratings system in 1968, television has responded with its most inventive work; creative producers like Steven Bochco ("Hill Street Blues," "N.Y.P.D. Blue," "Murder One") feel free to push the envelope without worrying that young children will sneak a peek.

    This, at any rate, is how some network executives and media scholars view the near-future of television. The only trouble is, practically no one in Hollywood agrees.

    As the television industry begins the daunting task of creating the ratings system it promised to President Clinton at a White House meeting late last month, most producers and writers are predicting disaster. They say that ratings will be ruinous for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that few parents agree on what is or isn't suitable fare for children.

    Dick Wolf, who produces the NBC crime drama "Law and Order," does not allow his 2-year-old son to watch "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," the hugely popular children's show on Fox, because he believes that its cartoonlike violence is more dangerous than the real-world mayhem depicted on his series. "After my son watched 'Power Rangers' one day," Mr. Wolf recalled, "he came out and started giving me pretend karate kicks."

    Haim Saban, who produces "Power Rangers" and eight other children's shows, including the often criticized cartoon "X-Men," says he encourages his 5-year-old daughter to watch "Power Rangers" but draws the line at "60 Minutes." "If V stands for violent, they better slap a V on '60 Minutes,'" Mr. Saban said.

    These men have their own agendas, of course. One is a leading creator of true-to-life adult dramas. The other is the television industry's most prolific producer of children's shows. But the fact that they disagree so profoundly on what's suitable for children suggests just how difficult it will be to develop a television ratings system.

    How Do You Rate 1,640 Hours a Day?

    In pledging to adopt such a system for everything from "Power Rangers" to "Picket Fences" -- and in promising to do it by 1997 -- television has taken on a task that producers, network executives and advertisers liken to catching lightning in a bottle. The stakes are breathtaking because the Government has mandated that in two years all new television sets must be equipped with the V-chip, a microchip that's encoded to block selected broadcast signals (the V stands for violence).

    "No matter what we do, we're going to be virulently criticized," said Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who last month brokered an agreement between the four broadcast networks and the cable industry to adopt ratings for sex and violence. At the meeting between President Clinton and a delegation of media barons on Feb. 29, Mr. Valenti announced that he would lead the effort to devise the ratings for television.

    Much has been made of how the television industry has capitulated to political pressure in agreeing to rate its programs. Most network executives acknowledge that with the passage in early February of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and its V-chip provision, the broadcast and cable networks recognized they faced a stark choice: they could either rate their own shows or let the Government do it for them.

    What is less understood, though, is that it may be well-nigh impossible for television to create a viable ratings system. Mr. Valenti notes that the average 70-channel cable system shows 600,000 hours of programming a year, or 1,640 hours a day. For the purposes of rating, that is the equivalent of 821 feature films per day; the M.P.A.A. rates only 600 films per year.

    Moreover, many shows are delivered to the networks only hours before they are broadcast. And unlike theatrical releases, network television shows are underwritten by advertising. Already, some major advertisers say they may feel compelled to pull commercials from series or specials that have ratings indicating sex or violence.

    Mr. Valenti must also persuade the networks and the cable industry to agree on a common ratings system. That would be hard enough given the subjective judgments that people bring to issues like sexual content, harsh language and violence. But also, the broadcast and cable industries approach the question of ratings from very different perspectives. CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox are loath to scare off advertisers; the USA Network, HBO and other cable services, less dependent on ad revenue, are less worried about the impact of ratings.

    Whatever scheme he ends up devising, Mr. Valenti must proceed with the knowledge that he will probably never satisfy producers like Mr. Saban, who thinks ratings are simply unworkable, or Mr. Wolf, who contends they will drive sophisticated dramas off network TV and onto cable.

    To Barry Diller, the former chairman of Fox who now runs Silver King Communications, the whole issue seems as unreal as a Saturday morning cartoon. "It is a terrible thing for this industry to promise the public something that we cannot, even minimally, deliver," he said.

    Still, Mr. Valenti is assembling a task force of 19 to 25 people from all corners of the television industry, and it will meet weekly over the next eight months to research, debate and fashion a ratings system. He said the group would use the movie association's ratings as a template. Those familiar codes range from G (General audiences), PG (Parental guidance suggested) and its tougher cousin PG-13, up to R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent) and NC-17 (No one under 17 admitted). Network executives said the television ratings would probably be more specific about age suitability -- PG-8 or PG-10, for example -- but would be fuzzy about actual content.

    As Hollywood's emissary to Washington, the 74-year-old Mr. Valenti is no stranger to the spotlight. He led the effort to rate movies 28 years ago under intense public scrutiny and pressure from theater owners. He has honed his pitch in years of after-dinner speeches and testimony before Congressional committees. "Is it a flawed system? You bet," Mr. Valenti said by telephone from Los Angeles, "But like Churchill said about democracy, 'It is the worst of all forms of governments, except for every other form of government.'"

    Mr. Valenti has been drawing on his skills as a lobbyist to sell the idea of ratings to some of Hollywood's leading producers. Recently he had dinner with Mr. Bochco to plead his case. Mr. Bochco's "N.Y.P.D. Blue," the highly rated Tuesday night show on ABC, has become a bellwether in the debate over ratings. The network has placed a parental advisory on the series throughout its three seasons because of its steamy sexual content. "I don't approve of ratings," Mr. Bochco said last week. "But given that we have to live with them, I don't want to bury my head in the sand."

    The Economic Costs, and the Political

    For all his talents as persuader, Mr. Valenti will have a hard time bringing around much of Hollywood. Mr. Wolf, for example, noted that advertisers routinely cancel commercials on "Law and Order" when it plumbs sensitive topics like abortion or assisted suicide. In that show's first season, he said, NBC lost $800,000 in advertising on a single episode that explored the bombing of abortion clinics.

    ABC was forced to discount commercial time on "N.Y.P.D. Blue" deeply for its first two seasons. In fact, while the series has consistently placed in the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings, several advertising executives said ABC was still selling commercials on "N.Y.P.D. Blue" at a slight discount.

    Mr. Wolf and others said that placing ratings on these series would only aggravate the situation. With a PG-13 rating, he said, "Law and Order" and "Murder One" would become easy marks for special-interest groups that already go after companies that buy commercials on these shows. "I've yet to meet the CEO of a major corporation who has the intestinal fortitude to face down that kind of attack," Mr. Wolf said.

    Pressure on advertisers has often generated more publicity than results. But the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, a conservative political organization in Tupelo, Miss., that has put pressure on advertisers, said a ratings system could make it easier to scare sponsors. "Advertisers are becoming a little more leery about the programming they support," Mr. Wildmon said, "It could play out that if a program has an R rating, they won't want to be on it."

    For at least one big advertiser, the prospect of ratings is unsettling. Philip Guarascio, the president of marketing and advertising at General Motors Corporation, said G.M. would have to give extra scrutiny to a show that carried a rating denoting violence or sex. G.M. already submits television series to episode-by-episode scrutiny before it advertises on them, but Mr. Guarascio said that an R rating would be a "red flag," which could make sponsors a target for pressure groups. "We want to sell our cars and trucks to a broad audience," Mr. Guarascio said, "but you cannot ignore external forces. We're a highly visible company, so we're under a magnifying glass."

    Top network executives say they are unruffled. ABC loses roughly $20 million in advertising revenue every year because of sponsors' rejecting controversial programs, said Robert A. Iger, the president and chief executive of Capital Cities/ABC. But he believes that adding ratings to shows will barely affect the network's prime-time schedule. It won't lead ABC to ask for less provocative programming, he said.

    As an example, Mr. Iger recalled that when Mr. Bochco proposed "N.Y.P.D. Blue" to ABC four years ago, he referred to it as an "R-rated" series. Mr. Iger told Mr. Bochco that if he created a high-quality adult-oriented series, ABC would schedule it -- and stick by it. "Let's say that it's a year from now, and we have a ratings system," Mr. Iger said. "If Steven came to me with the same request, I would give him exactly the same charge."

    Indeed, some observers argue that a ratings system will create more ambitious programs and weed out the dross. "Ratings will probably be salutary from an esthetic point of view," said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University. "A mild inducement to clean up your act can actually work to the betterment of the product."

    Where the Networks and Cable Diverge

    Whatever new products come along, few children between the ages of 2 and 11 tend to watch the shows that will receive adult ratings. In the case of "N.Y.P.D. Blue," only 4 percent of its audience is between 2 and 11, according to the A.C. Nielsen Company. For "Law and Order," the number is 3 percent. When young children watch prime-time television, they gravitate toward situation comedies, which dominate the 8 P.M. to 10 P.M. period. For ABC and its rivals, the question is, Does losing 4 percent of a program's audience make it unprofitable?

    Common sense would say no, but network television is an odd beast. It makes its money by delivering the largest possible audiences to advertisers. Advertising executives said that even losing a small percentage of viewers could force some shows off network television and onto cable.

    Cable networks are less vulnerable to swings in viewership and ad revenue because they get half their revenue from subscriber fees. That difference has stoked a protracted feud between the networks and cable. The networks contend that they have been unjustly tarred as purveyors of sex and violence when cable services like USA, TNT, Showtime and HBO show far more lurid material.

    Even more galling to the networks, the cable industry has taken the lead in publicizing the depth of public anger about television violence. Most recently, the National Cable Television Association released a major study of television violence that found that the amount of mayhem on television -- both network and cable -- had escalated in recent years. "They get to posture on the side of truth, virtue and ratings when by far the most violent programming is on their channels," said one senior network executive, who would speak only anonymously.

    The Children

    Squabbles between broadcasters and cable executives obscure the central underlying issue: How can the industry improve television for children?

    Given that so few young children watch television from 10 P.M. to 11 P.M., some people argue that Mr. Valenti should start by focusing his energies on daytime television, including talk shows and Saturday morning fare like "X-Men" and "Power Rangers." Animated series are particularly controversial because they are loaded with violence, though it is often of a stylized or fantastical nature. "As a parent, I am much more irritated by the violence in 'X-Men' than I am by the violence in an adult movie," said Peggy Charren, a longtime advocate of better children's programming.

    Mr. Saban, not surprising, argues that his "Power Rangers" should receive a G rating because its violence is so clearly a fantasy. "We fight turtles with traffic lights on their heads," he said.

    For all their spirited defense of prime time, network executives are oddly silent on children's programming. In part, this is because they acknowledge that they have no idea how sponsors would react if animated shows carried violence warnings.

    Of all the issues that face Mr. Valenti, perhaps the most bedeviling is whether ratings can actually make television better for children. Several executives contend that "graduated" ratings will not work for television because viewing is a passive act, not a deliberate one like going to the movies. Others note the obvious: that ratings have done little to stem the flood of violence in movies. "Ratings will in no way influence the kind of programs that get made," said Michael J. Fuchs, the former chairman of HBO, "They'll put electronic barriers around certain kinds of shows."

    For that matter, some experts point out that the M.P.A.A. ratings have flaws that would be magnified if they were adopted by to television. Barbara Wilson, a professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher on the cable-sponsored violence study, said movie ratings tended to be restrictive on sexual content but lenient on violence. "The ratings focus more on what might be offensive to parents, as opposed to what poses risks to kids," she said.

    Mr. Valenti has been listening to these arguments for nearly three decades. "I've stepped on many of these land mines in the past," he said.

    Even people skeptical about the whole enterprise said that Mr. Valenti's experience would be a benefit as he leads the television industry through the ratings thicket. But given the complexity of the issues, the scope of the challenge and the shortness of time, it still may not be enough.

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