Arts & Culture Correspondent

MENLO PARK, Calif.-A majority of parents say they use the new TV ratings system to help guide their children's viewing, and almost half say they have stopped their kids from watching a particular show because of its rating.

These are the most important findings in the first comprehensive survey of TV ratings since the revision of the system last fall at the beginning of the current season.

In May, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation of Menlo Park, Calif., released two studies on the subject. One interviewed 1,358 parents of children ages two-17, and the other questioned 446 kids ages 10- 17. The nonprofit organization, best known for its work on health-care policy issues, discovered that nearly all the parents who consult the ratings term them “useful.” But the studies also reveal that TV viewers are reluctant to pay for new technology like the V-chip that would automatically monitor TV shows and their ratings.

“Almost everyone who uses the ratings system finds it helpful,” Vicki Rideout, director of the Kaiser Family Foundation Entertainment Media and Public Health programs which supervised the studies, told the Register. “Parental concern about content is broad and deep.”

Among parents, 54% questioned said they had used the ratings, and 45% said they made at least one of their children switch off a show because of an inappropriate rating. As a result, 93% of those who consult them call them “useful.” The studies were released two months after the Federal Communications Commission formally approved the industry ratings plan.

“The conventional wisdom is that parents have greeted the system with a yawn,” Vice President Al Gore said at a recent Washington, D.C., news conference to announce the studies ’findings. “This simply isn't true.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation's study of children reveals that kids also use the ratings. A third of children interviewed say that they themselves have decided not to view a particular program because of its rating. An equal number report that their parents have prevented them from watching a show after consulting its rating.

The studies ’results contradict other polls that claim the ratings system is a bust. For instance, the Associated Press conducted a poll in February that asserted seven out of 10 adults surveyed pay little or no attention to the ratings system. And last September a Los Angeles Times poll maintained that 74% of those interviewed say they never consult the ratings before selecting a program.

Pro-family groups declared that the Kaiser studies' results indicate that the current ratings system doesn't do enough to curb excessive sex and violence on the tube.

“Programming with a garbage label is still garbage,” Mark Honing, executive director of the Los Angeles office of the Parents Television Council, told the Register. “Until the networks address the issue of programming, people are going to be upset about what's on the airwaves.”

The Kaiser studies found evidence to support Honig's view. The number of parents who are concerned “a great deal” about too much sexual content increased to 67%, from 43% a year and a half ago. Those expressing similar worries about excessive violence rose from 39% to 62% during the same time period.

“People are more upset than ever,” Honig declared. “Families are going to use the V-chip. That's a bad sign. They shouldn't have to do it.”

The 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the use of V-chip technology beginning next year. The current ratings system will then be supplemented by the electronic V-chip device which can read the ratings of a particular show and block programming in ratings categories determined by the viewer. It must be included in half of all new TV sets with 13-inch screens or larger by 1999. All new sets must be equipped with the device by 2000.

Sixty-five percent of parents surveyed say that if they had a V-chip they would use it to block objectionable shows. But even though the V-chip equipment will cost little additional money, many viewers seem reluctant to pay extra for it. Forty-five percent of parents interviewed say they are “not at all likely” to buy the new device in the next year, and 24% say they are “not too likely” to spend any money on V-chip technology.

Nevertheless, 71% of parents who use the ratings believe they provide “reasonably accurate” information about TV programming, and 73% say they learn a show's rating from the on-screen symbol at the beginning of each program.

Under current guidelines, a show's rating is displayed during the first 15 seconds of a program in the upper left corner of the screen. If the show runs longer than an hour, the rating must appear again during the first 15 seconds of each hour of the program.

The studies find that parents don't think this is good enough. Sixty-seven percent say that even when they are looking for the rating, they miss it, and 84% who consult the ratings wish it appeared more often.

The current system was first put into place in January 1997. Conceived in imitation of the 30-year-old movie ratings system, it was adopted because the White House, responding to pressure from parents, insisted that the entertainment business do more to reduce sex and violence in its programs. The TV industry's first system produced ratings that went from “TVG” (appropriate for general audiences) to “TV-MA” (unsuitable for children under 17). Because of additional pressure from pro-family groups, the system was altered in October to include ratings for content. Added were the labels, S, V, L, and D, which refer, respectively, to sex, violence, language, and suggestive dialogue. All the networks and cable systems went along with the new ratings except for NBC, whose programming is watched by more people than any other outlet.

Despite these changes, many viewers want even more information.

“Parents are still confused,” Honig said.

The Kaiser studies reveal they particularly need to know: how the ratings system operates, what types of shows are rated, what the different symbols mean, and who determines the ratings. Less than half of all parents know that children's programs, talk shows, and daytime dramas are rated as well as prime time comedy and dramatic programming. And only 54% understand what at least six of 11 ratings symbols stand for, and 46% recognize only five or fewer.

The studies also found that only 31% of parents realize that the TV industry rates itself. Many assume outsiders rate the shows. Thirty-two percent believe an independent board comes up with the ratings, and 9% think it's the government.

According to the studies, 18% of parents, about one in five, say they have never heard of the ratings system. And 27% of those who know about it say they would “never” or “hardly ever” use it. About a third of those not using the ratings say they would rather decide for themselves what their children should be viewing.

“The system is not working because it's incomplete,” Honig said.

Studies' director Rideout agrees. “Parents don't think the TV ratings system fully addresses their concerns,” she says. “It's just one tool in the toolbox. It's not the whole solution.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation plans to do more research in this area.

John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.