Information Rage

Rating the TV raters

Our seemingly interminable national soap opera about the urgent need to "clean up" TV--to make the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers settle disputes with their heads rather than their hands, to make NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz keep his clothes on, to make Beavis and Butt-head stop playing with matches--has entered its final absurdist episode. While the actual program categories proposed by the television industry may change, it is absolutely clear that, in one form or another, "voluntary" TV ratings are here to stay. After all, they are mandated by the same federal legislation that will bring V-chips to new television sets beginning in 1998.

It is similarly clear that the camera-hogging politicians, outraged children's advocacy groups, and tongue-clucking editorial boards who have championed government regulation of television feel that viewers are tasteless boobs desperately in need of expert guidance only they can provide. Such thinking explains the chorus of boos that greeted the television industry's new age-based rating system.

Using the Motion Picture Association of America's movie ratings as a guide, an industry commission led by MPAA head Jack Valenti created six categories: TV-Y (appropriate for all children), TV-Y7 (unsuitable for kids under seven), TV-G (general audiences), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14), and TV-M (mature audiences only). Broadcast and cable networks will be responsible for rating whatever they choose to air, with only news and sports programming exempt. These ratings will be used in conjunction with the V-chip when it becomes commercially available.

Critics claim that an age-based system, rather than a content-based one that explicitly rates shows on sex, violence, and language, lacks the truly meaningful information that will best let viewers bypass shows sight unseen. Hence, Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) rips the ratings as "a toothless system that tells parents nothing about whether a show contains violence, sexual content or profanity."

"The industry plan...offers even less information than [some] cable programmers...already provide," opines USA Today. "There's no reason why this information can't be made available," declares Tim Collings of Canada's Simon Fraser University and the creator of the V-chip. (Ironically, Canada's own content-based system has been pulled as unworkable and unreliable in rating the 600,000 or so programs Hollywood produces in a given year.)

The charge that TV shows are unknown quantities rings as true as the dialogue on Baywatch. Widely promoted both in print and on screen, and summarized routinely in daily listings, television programs are probably the most honestly and openly advertised commodity in the American marketplace. No one tunes to Family Matters and expects a panel discussion about kinship relations (for those who do, the theme song should clear up any confusion). Viewers are not surprised when the fighting starts on Walker: Texas Ranger (Chuck Norris's reputation as a karate champ and action star precedes him). The Three Stooges did not suddenly turn to violence in the 1990s.

If anything, TV programs suffer from a complete lack of mystery. They draw audiences by delivering what viewers expect and demand, not by fooling or hoodwinking them. Unsolved Mysteries is, in the end, absolutely predictable. To suggest that what TV viewers need is more information about the shows they choose to watch is really to attack the choices themselves.

Such misdirection is of a piece with a crusade that has consistently spoken in an Orwellian dialect. The language games go beyond substituting "voluntary" for "mandatory." They extend to the basic fact that the link between watching television and engaging in violent or sexual behavior is far from clear. Indeed, the authors of The UCLA Violence Monitoring Report and The National Television Violence Study, two government- initiated "voluntary" tallies of prime-time programming widely cited as proving the need for regulation, readily acknowledged the point.

The misdirection extends to the ultimate goal of the crusaders: Far from being dedicated to the proper labeling of TV violence, sexual situations, and adult language, they want to change the sorts of things that get broadcast--and are absolutely committed to using government muscle, rather than market forces or moral suasion, to get their way. Occasionally, the do-gooders admit this. As Attorney General Janet Reno bluntly put it in 1993, if the entertainment biz didn't reduce the violence on TV--"voluntarily," of course-- "government action will be imperative."

Overall, though, moments of clarity are rare in the effort to make the small screen safe as milk. Instead, we are treated to a relentless rage for "information" that, in seeking to overturn age-based ratings, treats us all as children. And the TV crusaders, in turn, fill the role of stern parents bellowing orders at truculent teenagers refusing to do as they are told. In life, of course, children eventually leave their parents and live, for better or worse, by their own wits. If the crusaders get their way, however, no such plot development will happen in TV land.

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