In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission introduced TV Parental Guidelines, a set of ratings similar to current movie ratings, to provide parents with information about programming. But today we are consuming television in a way we never could have imagined back in 1997. In this age of all things streaming, do these gadgets still have the impact they once had?
Media critic Stephen Kerris doesn’t think so. As he writes about rating systems used in both the TV and film industries, “Although streaming services talk about change and innovation, they still rely on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings and TV Parents Guidelines for shaping and presenting content. […] Ratings have increasingly felt elusive.”
Given that both rating systems were created long before the era of broadcasting, this may be true.
The rating system for television resembles the most popular version created by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which debuted in the form of Hays Code, “a boring production standard, full of foolish provisions banning subjects as arbitrary as white slavery, banditry, and indecent dance” was codified Between 1922 and 1930. Outraged against its inconsistent and somewhat authoritarian restrictions, the MPAA amended the Hays Act more than once before abandoning it entirely in 1966.
The MPAA created a new self-organizing system in 1968, with ratings of G, M, R, and X, where each letter goes up a child-friendly ladder (PG-13 and NC-17 were added in 1984 and 1990, respectively, with the latter replacing the X). ). But as critics argue, the ratings were an economic indicator for theater owners, rather than a consistent guide for parents. In short, the higher the rating, the fewer tickets sold. Television rating systems followed a similar scheme.
TV Parental Guidelines were put into place as part of the Communications Act of 1996, and despite being required by Congress, networks voluntarily enforce the guidelines and decide ratings. This reflects similar attempts at self-regulation, such as the recording industry parental counseling posters, all the way to supporting the National PTA. But as media scientist Lynne Guerich writes, rather than offering parents a clear roadmap, ratings were more likely to “reproduce the implicit uncertainty of motion picture production law rather than a semantic alternative.”
Television ratings were confusing for both viewers and creators, and as animator and producer Aaron Ogenblick explains, “everything is somewhat arbitrary and decided by lawyers.” The guidelines include both rating and content indicators. For example, a show can be labeled TV-14, which indicates that viewers under 14 must be given parental guidance, and also includes a content index such as a V, indicating violence.
These instructions came with a digital execution device – the V-chip. The V-chip was also introduced as part of the Communications Act of 1996, allowing “viewers to block programming based on indications of age or content (or a combination of both),” Goerich explains. All new TVs of 13 inches or larger were required to have them by the year 2000. However, the transition was not smooth. As Keres notes, many studies “have found that technology and guidelines are underused and unclear to most parents.”
And now, “Any human with access to a smartphone and a working WiFi is one URL away from just about anything,” Kearse points out. “What would these companies gain from adopting a contested, undesirable, unenforceable and non-binding classification system?”
Despite having more content, in more places than ever, the old system continues to function, despite its apparent uselessness. “If this is really the age of choice and recommendation,” Kearse notes. “It is baffling that broadcasters remain in bondage to a rating system that does not improve either service.”
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Written by: Stephen Keres
The Baffler, No. 53 (September-October 2020), pages 52-59
Written by: Lynne Guerich
Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Spring 2001), pp. 439-467
University of Chicago Press