TV Ratings—Time To Change the Program

The Parent Television Council’s recently released report on television ratings confirms what nearly any parent who watches television already knows: That, in general, the TV ratings system isn’t meeting the needs of the portion of the population it’s designed to assist.

In my opinion, there are many reasons why this is the case, and the blame can be pointed in many directions. The primary reason noted in the PTC report is broadcasters aren’t "flipping the switch" that’s required to activate protective circuitry in television sets. It’s like having an alarm system with no way of triggering it.

Then there are the electronics manufacturers. Previously I wrote about how the V-chip menu should be the first thing a consumer faces when they bring home a new television set. But instead of making the V-chip and easy item to use, set builders have opted to bury the "on button" under dozens of menus within your TV that most parents will never find.

I recently visited a large electronics store to see how various manufacturers implemented V-chip technology. Of the half dozen brands I tried, only one—Sony—had a relatively easy to use V-chip menu. The rest had a dreadful series of button pushes and cryptic menus with no help screens or other assistance. Considering most of this county doesn’t get around to setting the clock on their VCR’s, is it any wonder V-chips are left idling?

And of course, some blame needs to fall on parents. Yes, the thing is difficult to program, but an hour of "geek time" with your television’s remote control and operations manual could save your children being exposed to unnecessary content… but that, of course, brings us back to square one: Even an activated V-chip can’t do anything if it doesn’t get a signal from the broadcaster to do so.

However, until a major change can be made with the methods currently in place for rating television programs, these issues will never go away. The changes would require the current ad hoc methods of classifying television programs to be replaced with a system that would at least bring consistency to the methods used to determine ratings.

This is best illustrated by comparing TV ratings with those used for movies, under the administration of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).

Yes, the MPAA ratings are far from perfect and are—like television—assigned by an organization that is directly funded from the industry it is meant to police. But they are relatively consistent from movie to movie. This consistency is due to having an assigned group of people, known as the Classification And Rating Administration (CARA), who are responsible for assigning the ratings.

TV ratings don’t offer this same consistency because each network has their own methods for assigning ratings. There is no central board that is in charge of maintaining the ratings and ensuring they meet certain criteria. So no matter how hard we try to get networks to engage in providing effective ratings, unless we have a central "clearing house," TV ratings will never be able to consistently reflect the content of programs.

Of course, the industry would have many reasons as to why a central board wouldn’t work—the primary one being the sheer quantity of television programs. When you consider the hundreds of available channels multiplied by dozens of titles on each one, it would be a mammoth undertaking.

The other difficulty is the immediacy of television. Unlike movies, which may be completed weeks or even months before their opening day, television shows are often receiving finishing touches just a day—if not even hours—before their scheduled air date.

Yet there are still solutions that could assist in making ratings more reasonable. We might begin with each network creating their own "CARA," a designated group of "ordinary" people with parenting experiences who are responsible for rating that network’s programs. With available technology, these reviewers could view programs on secure DVD discs or, if time was short, on an encrypted Internet video feed, allowing people from various locations in the U.S. to participate.

To add to the consistency, a central national committee for television reviewers would also be formed, with at least one member from each participating network’s rating board having a seat on the central board. A once or twice a year meeting would allow reviewers to discuss ratings issues. This national board would also create clear and descriptive criteria for each rating category, and ensure these criteria were met.

This board, through funding from networks, government, and/or other associated groups, would provide ongoing education on television ratings, V-chip operations, and the wise use of television with children, to the general public. They would also be a liaison with the consumer electronics industry in helping to create a friendly and more usable V-chip interface.

What would it cost? Considering the enormous amount of money already spent on V-chip technology (and I suspect the greatest amount has been borne by consumers of new TV sets), the cost of financing a board of reviewers would be relatively small. If necessary, the FCC could mandate all networks to do so, making it a level playing field.

Perhaps I’m overtly pessimistic, but I can’t believe the content on television will globally revert back to earlier days. Even with the progress we have seen over the past year in cleaning up the airwaves, cable and other upcoming technologies will continue to push content and decency standards. The V-chip isn’t perfect but, at this point, it’s all we’ve got. We need to let broadcasters know that we are depending on them and expecting them to fulfill their part in this agreement.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…