WHERE DO children learn their moral values? At home? In church? In school? Thirty years ago these would have been the answers. But today an increasing number of parents have reluctantly concluded that the primary purveyor of morality to their kids is television.
This perception was a key motivation for advocacy groups and politicians to pressure the entertainment business to agree to a TV ratings system, and, in this context, the industry's recent agreement to revise its system should be scored as a victory for parental empowerment. Five of the six networks and almost all the major cable programmers will now add content-rating icons to existing classifications that categorize programs according to their suitability for different age groups.
The new designations will be V, L, S and D—for violence, coarse language, sexual situations and dialogue with sexual innuendo. These will be added to the existing categories: TV-G (suitable for general audiences), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-l4 (parents strongly cautioned), and TV-M (specifically targeted at adults).
At first glance all these letters and numbers may seem confusing, but they are designed for parents to use on the V-chip, a thumbnail-sized device that Congress mandated be installed in all new TV sets beginning in 1998. The chip can be programmed to block out—by ratings—shows that parents don't want their kids to see.
As examples of what the changes will mean, the current hit series, NYPD Blue, will now be rated TV-14-S, V, L, and the popular sitcom, The Nanny, TV-PG-D. Cartoon shows will add the label FV, for fantasy violence to the existing categories of TV-7 and TV-Y7.
The deal would never have been cut unless both the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress had threatened the broadcasters financially. They issued warnings about possible punitive legislation concerning the stations'valuable licenses and their transition to digital broadcasting. At stake are tens of billions of dollars. So, as much as the industry hated the idea of any kind of ratings system, the conglomerates that own television— Westinghouse, the Walt Disney Co., Time Warner, the News Corp., and Viacom—decided that it wasn't worth the fight
The broadcasters also realized that despite their initial fears there had been no loss of revenue from advertisers since the adoption of the system in January. Their accountants have figured out that homes with pre-adolescent children constitute a small percentage of TV viewership and that it may be at least a decade before even a majority of these families own a V-chip.
NBC, the lone holdout, currently has the most successful programming line-up and hopes its position will attract top producers and writers to work for it. Citing first amendment concerns, it issued a statement that declared “as a matter of principle, there is no place for government involvement in what people watch on television.”
These views are shared by Hollywood's creative community. The Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild published their own joint statement, saying they cannot support the new ratings system and fear it will have a negative effect “on television programming enjoyed by millions.” The guilds are considering a lawsuit on free-speech grounds.
This attempt to raise the red flag of censorship is based on a distortion of the facts. The industry agreement makes no promise to change programming content. It merely provides viewers with more information about what's being aired.
Initially all the broadcasters adopted the point of view of NBC and the guilds, but they couldn't sell it to the public. Instead they looked like the tobacco industry, damaging children in the pursuit of profit. So they tried to get a system that would harm their interests as little as possible.
The broadcasters negotiated the agreement with the National PTA, the National Educational Association, the American Medical Association, and seven other groups in response to lawmakers'threats to come up with their own ratings system if the industry didn't act voluntarily. In return for the deal, it expects an 18-month moratorium on new legislation regulating TV.
But some organizations aren't satisfied. They want changes in the permissive nature of the programming itself: “We're very concerned that it doesn't go far enough,” said Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents Television Council.
Tim Wildmon, vice president of the American Family Association, thinks things may even get worse. The ratings system merely gives the industry “more license to do whatever they want to do, under the guise of ‘Hey, we warned you,’” he told reporters
Afew lawmakers voiced similar fears. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who participated in the deal-making process, says any new legislative proposals will be killed by the congressional leadership who signed off on the moratorium.
The new system is really a truth-in-labeling agreement. Now parents will know in advance the kind of shows to which their children are being exposed. It may be a step forward, but it's a small one if you look at the big picture.
The permissive content of many shows isn't likely to be changed despite threats of consumer boycotts. Concerned citizens need to address other issues as well. Our culture's key non-government institutions— Churches, schools, and the family—need to be strengthened in their resolve to defend traditional values. Only then will our children have a chance to grow up in a morally positive environment.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.