A 15-year failure? Parents Television Council says TV content ratings are flawed

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Nicole Scherzinger and her partner, Derek Hough, perform on Nicole Scherzinger and her partner, Derek Hough, perform on "Dancing With the Stars" in 2010. (ABC)

The ABC reality television staple "Dancing With the Stars" is riding high on a seven-year wave of positive momentum.

Indeed, reasons abound to celebrate "Dancing With the Stars," which pairs celebrities with professional dancers to form pro-am dance teams that compete over several weeks. The show maintains much of the strong ratings it debuted to in 2005. Host Tom Bergeron recently won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Host of a Reality Program. And this season’s “all-star” cast of celebrities brings back no fewer than five former “Dancing With the Stars” champions.

Furthermore, the program popularizes a wide swath of multicultural dance steps like the tango, Mambo and rumba — all while illustrating the value of hard work and physical fitness.

Yet there exist some content concerns that cannot go unmentioned. In most episodes, profanity gets bleeped out of footage from a high-pressure rehearsal, and the female performance costumes trend toward skimpy.

ABC sees no problem with a third-grader watching “Dancing With the Stars,” because the network labels the program as TV-PG — “parental guidance suggested" — and not TV-14 (“parents strongly cautioned ... this program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age”).

This example of ABC and “Dancing With the Stars” demonstrates a startling reality: Television networks not only remain responsible for rating their own content, but are also incentivized to "go light" on those ratings because a restrictive rating can scare off advertisers. And as the TV rating system sits on the cusp of its 15th birthday, time has done little to cure its inherent flaws. But at this point, there may not be a more practical option for aiding families in regulating the TV content that enters their homes.

Making TV-PG meaningless

In addition to TV-PG and TV-14, there are four other content ratings: TV-Y (all children), TV-Y7 (directed to older children) and TV-G (general audience) all fall below TV-PG, while TV-MA (mature audiences only) sits alone above TV-14. But when it comes to broadcast programming during primetime hours, 98 percent of those shows are rated either TV-PG or TV-14. According to Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the non-partisan advocacy group Parents Television Council, that figure is so high because networks are solely responsible for rating their content — and, consequently, financial motivations inevitably figure into how networks rate that programming.

“If a network fears they’re going to frighten advertisers — (that) advertisers are going to be skittish about advertising on a program with a TV-MA rating — then they are motivated to give it a (lower) rating even if that might not be the most appropriate rating,” Henson said. “But there’s no penalty for them; there are no consequences for them doing that. So why not do it?”

In that vein, Parents Television Council recently published a new study detailing the inadequacy of the TV-PG rating at protecting children from exposure to inappropriate content. Specifically, the study “What Kids Can See When It’s Rated TV-PG” determined a child watching primetime shows with the TV-PG rating would be exposed to explicit, adult-oriented content more than once every six minutes.

Via a press release announcing the release of the study, Parents Television Council president Tim Winter said, “Even the most diligent parent who only allows TV-PG rated content into their home would be exposing their children unwittingly to a torrent of sex, violence and profanity on a nightly basis. … Broadcast networks produce and rate their own content, leaving parents with a deeply flawed and largely inaccurate ratings system. An accurate and accountable system would steer informed families and many advertisers away from harsh content, costing the networks a material loss in revenue. This is a clear conflict of interest.”

15 years down the drain?

The current, six-tiered ratings for TV content will turn 15 years old on Jan. 1.

In advance of that anniversary, Parents Television Council voiced its displeasure with the current system in a two-page letter to every member of Congress. Dated Sept. 19, that letter reads in part, “January 2013 will mark the 15-year anniversary of the initial proposal by the television industry of the existing system for rating television programming to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). After 15 years of a poorly conceived, poorly executed, poorly overseen system, it is time to give American families more tools and more choices to contain the flow of objectionable entertainment content entering their homes. … The television content rating system is in urgent need of substantial reform.”

For her part, Henson is no fan of the existing rating system — and yet she also acknowledges it might be the best option moving forward because “it took many years for parents to feel comfortable and aware of the current rating system, and there was a very low rate of adoption and utility with the existing rating system.” She advocates for an oversight mechanism to augment the current ratings system wherein an independent auditor or industry board could hold broadcasters responsible for the ratings they dole out.

The worst possible outcome, Henson explains, would be to do nothing.

“Since the advent of the TV rating system, the rate at which TV has grown coarser has consistently accelerated, and I think they’re using the ratings as cover,” she said. “They’re essentially saying, ‘Hey, we warned you it was going to be there — so if your kid saw something you didn’t want them to see, that’s your fault, not ours.’

“We can’t allow that to happen; we need to push back on the industry to not just label the offensive content, but to dial back the offensive content.”

J.G. Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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