Originally created 12/20/96

Ratings systems sound and fury



From all the public gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair and rending of garments that has preceded Thursday's release of content ratings for television shows, you'd think something of biblical significance were going on.

It's not.

Is it newsworthy? Of course. Never before have TV producers and distributors devised and operated a system to tag virtually all entertainment shows with labels alerting viewers to content that might not be appropriate for some children.

But significant? Neither the industry plan nor any of the more complex and unworkable schemes championed by special-interest groups and political do-gooders will have any impact on crime, violence, cynicism, child abuse, dysfunctional families, immorality, incivility or the values embraced by the nation's youth.

The only real significance of TV ratings is their potential for illegal government mischief in connection with what we see and hear.

This is not to say that the ratings won't prove useful. Just as people now know generally what to expect from movies rated "R," "PG," "PG-13" and so on, so the vast and diverse TV audience will pretty quickly find the industry's "TV-K," "TV-14," "TV-PG" and other labels helpful in figuring out what to watch, what to avoid and what to keep their kids away from.

What this ratings system does not provide, however, is all the information that concerned viewers might need to make a well-reasoned viewing choice.

And that isn't sitting well with such groups as the PTA and the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with a few busybody legislators, who have objected loudly to using age-based ratings instead of detailed evaluations of sex, violence and profanity.

These critics continue to agitate for a ratings system that, when combined with the V-chip, would turn TV sets into the video equivalent of a set-and-forget Crockpot.

Yet, such a system would be so complex as to be unworkable for the industry and impractical for viewers. And the industry's decision to connect content to age levels grew directly out of the rationale that produced the ratings legislation in the first place: protecting children.

It's true, of course, that the industry has no interest in branding shows as blatantly violent, profane and/or sexual for fear of scaring off skittish advertisers.

But it's also true that only a viewer knows the shadings of his or her own sensitivities and sensibilities, and that no one knows what's appropriate for any child better than his or her parents.

And a detailed ratings system that judged a show's content (say, the dead bodies in "Homicide") while ignoring the quality and context of that content (brilliant, tough and honest human drama) would be almost as ignorant as it would be unfair.

The most a fair ratings system can hope to do, then, is offer concerned viewers a graduated scale of general signals about a show's content.

When those signals advise caution, concerned viewers know to seek more information about the show from friends and associates, listings, feature stories or even reviews by TV critics. That hardly seems too much to ask.