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Study: TV ratings a ‘sham’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Families who use television ratings to guide their TV viewing habits are relying on a “sham” system that doesn’t work, a new study asserts.

The Parents Television Council study of 546 hours of primetime broadcast programming found that 67 percent of the time, the show contained offensive programming without the proper content label. For instance, the program may have had sexual content but no “S” label to warn viewers.

The April 16 study is significant because ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox filed suit last year challenging fines imposed by the Federal Communications Commission due to various indecency violations. In fact, the networks issued a joint statement criticizing the “growing government control over what viewers should and shouldn’t see” and arguing that parents already have control over their TV thanks to the V-Chip and other blocking technologies.

But the V-Chip relies on television ratings, which the Parents Television Council says are useless. Each program is given a rating, such as “TV-G,” “TV-PG,” “TV-14” and “TV-MA,” along with letters warning viewers of offensive content. For example, an “S” refers to sexual content, a “V” to violence, an “L” to language and a “D” to suggestive dialogue. A show’s rating can be seen at the beginning of the program and sometimes following commercial breaks. Newer television sets contain V-Chips that automatically detect the ratings.

“The ratings system is a sham meant to keep Congress at bay while Hollywood continues to pump more and more of its toxic content into America’s homes,” the study noted. “… The V-Chip cannot be relied upon to consistently block offensive programs because parents cannot rely on the ratings to correctly identify problematic content.”

The study examined programming on all six broadcast networks (the four already mentioned plus CW and MyNetworkTV) during the November and February sweeps weeks. News and sports programming were not included. Among the findings:

— 63 percent of shows with sexual content did not have an “S” descriptor.

— 54 percent of shows with suggestive dialogue lacked a “D.”

— 44 percent of shows with foul language had no “L.”

— 42 percent of shows with violence did not have a “V.”

The study’s findings mean, for instance, that a mother who wanted to block all sexual content from her children would be unsuccessful the large majority of the time.

The 15-page report contained several pages of violation examples by the networks. An episode of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” was rated “TV-PG” and had 14 instances of profanity, but no “L” label. An episode of ABC’s “What About Brian” was rated “TV-PG DL” but did not have an “S” descriptor, even though there was a scene in a strip club with scantily clad dancers. And a “TV-14” episode of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” had a graphic discussion about pornography and sexual noises but no “D” label.

The study even found problems with ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (TV-PG) and CW’s “7th Heaven” (TV-G), each of which had episodes containing one profanity but no “L” descriptor.

The study did say that MyNetworkTV does “by far the best job” in placing the correct content descriptors on programming, with the exception of the “D” label.

Ninety-nine percent of all the programs examined were rated either TV-PG or TV-14. No programs were rated TV-MA — the strongest possible rating.

The problem, the study pointed out, is that the ratings are done by the networks themselves. By contrast, ratings for movies in theaters are done by an independent body.

“Networks are financially motivated to under-rate their programs because a more restrictive rating could scare off advertisers,” the study said.

The study quoted Concerned Women for America’s Martha Kleder, who argued that the networks’ self-policing poses a conflict of interest.

“The highest authority the networks answer to is the advertiser, and advertisers don’t want to pay for ads on programs that might be blocked from a sizeable portion of the audience,” Kleder said. “This fact alone taints the network’s objectivity when rating its own shows.”

The courts, as well as Congress, should not trust the broadcast networks to police themselves, the study advised.

“Clearly, the TV ratings and the V-Chip are inadequate for protecting children and families from offensive content,” the study said. “Congress and the courts should not be swayed by Hollywood’s argument that the existing decency laws are no longer needed because of these technologies. The FCC must continue to vigorously enforce broadcast decency laws, and the American people must continue to hold the networks accountable for how they use the publicly owned broadcast airwaves.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust