February 26, 1996

Little Agreement on Plan for Rating TV Programs


As television industry leaders continue to confer this week in preparation for their audience with President Clinton on Thursday to discuss ways to make broadcasting more "family friendly," politics has scrambled the signals.

The 16 or so leaders, including the chief executives of all the major networks, had hoped to present Clinton with at least the framework of a plan for rating their programs for sexual and violent content.

But as Thursday's meeting approaches, the prospect for consensus is fading. Industry executives have been pressured from both sides of the political aisle -- from some Republicans who hope to see any ratings announcement deferred so President Clinton does not get credit for it, and from some Democrats who want more family-friendly topics put on the agenda for the meeting.

The subject of political pressure has become so sensitive that the usually voluble Jack Valenti, who as president of the Motion Picture Association of America has been prodding the broadcast and cable networks to agree to try MPAA-style ratings, won't talk about it. "It's sensitive now, there's no question about that," is all he would say.

"The question is who will get credit, the White House or the Republicans," said a congressional staff aide who works on the issue and who insisted on anonymity.

The new telecommunications bill requires new television sets to have a V-chip -- a microchip that can be programmed to black out shows that carry a given code -- and gives the networks a year to come up with their own system to produce such codes.

"The political process says get it done by Feb. 29," said Tony Cox, a senior vice president of Viacom Inc. who has been a leader in the cable industry's quest for ways to label programming. "But it would be better to take the 12 months if we need it and do it right."

While Republicans and Democrats worry about keeping each other from getting the upper hand in the family-values debate, some network executives cannot abide the idea of one of their colleagues, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of the News Corp., getting credit for whatever ratings system is devised.

Murdoch, who is scheduled to make a speech at the National Press Club Monday about the public-interest obligations of broadcasters, said last week that his Fox network would use an MPAA-like ratings code, regardless of whether any other networks agreed.

"It took us two days to calm everyone down about Rupert setting himself up to take credit for forcing us to do this," said one network executive, who insisted on anonymity.

The public relations spin is important to all concerned because in some ways the whole issue is one of image: who will be perceived as defenders of family values and protectors of the nation's children?

To that end, advocates of ratings codes try to call them "labels" and useful supplementary information for parents, rather than crude blocking devices leading to parental censorship. As Reed E. Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a recent speech, in the new multimedia world of television, computers and video games in the home, "navigation is king, and parents must have the tools to safely guide their children through uncharted waters."

Overshadowing these discussions is the political debate over whether TV stations should be required to pay for the new bandwidths soon to be available on the broadcast spectrum, which would allow them to greatly expand their channel capacity. With billions of dollars at stake, broadcasters want politicians on all sides to see them as responsible public citizens who should continue to have free licenses.

The discussion about what sort of rating system to use has also bogged down about technological and logistical issues.

According to Cox of Viacom, those questions are so complicated that he cannot imagine a definitive proposal being ready to put on the President's table Thursday.

Valenti agreed, if reluctantly. He would like to see a broad-brush agreement presented Thursday, he said, but recognized that the details were devilish.

"For any 70-channel cable system," he said, "there are 611,000 hours of programming presented a year. Even if you take out news and sports, it's 300,000-some hours. That's compared to about 1,000 hours of movies we rate each year."

The MPAA codes -- G, PG-13, R and NC-17 -- are applied by a panel of 8 to 11 parents, selected by a chairman who is chosen by the MPAA president. The panel discusses the films as a group; if they disagree, a rating decision is made by majority vote. Standards for each rating category are published, and film makers can appeal their rating.

There is no requirement that films be rated. But as the system has become familiar, producers generally want a rating, knowing that consumers expect one. Some argue that television ratings would become similarly accepted over time, and that rather than scare viewers and advertisers away, ratings would help both groups be more selective in their choices.

"It's like the auto industry, which at first resisted installing safety features and then resisted advertising them," Cox said. "Then they learned these features mattered to their customers. Now they brag about their air bags or the safety of their cars. We need to realize that knowing about content suitability matters to our customers, too."

All the networks already have standards and practices departments, which review programs and remove offensive material. Some also add advisories, which appear on screen before a program begins, saying it has sexual or violent content or coarse language. In fact, few programs on television would warrant even a PG-13 rating, let alone an R under the MPAA system.

Advertising agencies also screen programs for their clients and withdraw advertisements from shows that a client deems inappropriate.

The television industry can look to its offspring in the video and computer-game industries for guidance, too. The Recreational Software Advisory Council is one of several groups that rates computer games; it rates levels of sex, violence and profane language on a scale of one to four, and uses a thermometer logo that is placed on the cardboard packaging of each game.

"We tell how much violence or sex or profanity is there but we don't make recommendations about who should or shouldn't see it," said Steve Balkam, the council's executive director.

Another group, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, evaluates video game cartridges and CD-ROM games, and uses both age-group symbols and "content describers" on the packaging to help parents make judgments.

All these methods for labeling programming are on the table for talks among TV executives. Whether they reach a consensus in a month or a year, the process is underway.

"There are three concerns of American viewers: they want less violent programming, less indecent programming and more children's educational programming," said Hundt of the FCC. "And they want to know which is which."

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