WASHINGTON – Almost 30 years after creating the movie industry’s content code, MPAA prexy Jack Valenti completed a historic repeat performance by officially presenting the new TV ratings system to President Clinton at the White House today.
Valenti’s presentation was a symbolic gesture of closure. The industry first announced that it would create a voluntary ratings system at a White House summit Feb. 29.
President Clinton did his best to remain above the ratings fray Thursday while at the same time praising the TV industry for making good on its promise to come up with its own code. “I have no idea if this is the very best system that could be devised. I do believe it is a huge step forward over what we have now, which is nothing,” Clinton said.
The three major webs will begin ratings shows on Jan. 1, and other networks are expected to follow close behind. As expected, the proposed ratings code exempts news and sports programming. The TV code debuted to mixed reviews with critics, including V-chip sire Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), vowing that the ratings battle has only just begun.
As early as 1998, TV sets arrive in stores that will allow parents to block the reception of programs that have been tagged with an electronically encoded rating.
The next stop for the V-chip ratings code is the FCC, which will open a six-week public comment period. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allows the FCC to create an advisory board to write its own ratings system if the commission determines the industry’s effort does not live up to Congress’ expectations.
FCC chairman Reed Hundt said he was reserving judgment on the ratings proposal until the public comment period is completed. On Wednesday, Valenti made the rounds at the FCC, providing each of the commissioners with a private presentation of the TV ratings system. FCC sources said that the system played much better during the personal presentation than they expected, especially after several weeks of criticism from Markey and a handful of public interest groups.
Valenti also discussed the system with Hundt and two of Hundt’s top aides during a private breakfast meeting at the MPAA prexy’s house.
Aside from the blistering criticism that Markey and several public interest groups have unleashed, the most controversial element of the industry’s effort appears to be the ratings systems’ treatment of exempt programs. Tabloid magazine shows such as King World’s “Inside Edition” and “American Journal” insist they qualify as news programs and therefore are entitled to exemption from the labeling system.
King World officials point to a document released by the V-chip implementation committee, which states that “newsmagazine programs such as those currently on air in the evening” are exempt from the rating system. But other members of the V-chip implementation committee, including National Cable Television Assn. prexy Decker Anstrom, said they expect tabmag shows to be rated. National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy Eddie Fritts said local stations will tag the tabmag shows with a rating if the syndicators fail to do so.
As justification for labeling the programs, Fritts and Anstrom pointed to a sentence in the new exemption document, which states that among the non-exempt programs are “entertainment shows containing information about show business and reports on public figures and other issues of general interest.”
The other non-exempt category are network and syndicated morning, fringe and latenight talkshows.
In an effort to bolster support for their effort, Valenti released two polls that, he said, showed that more that more than 80% of parents support the proposed ratings system. Fritts also announced that TV stations would soon begin airing 30-second public-service announcements touting the new TV code. In addition, the industry effort has printed 2 million brochures, which it intends to begin distributing to the public.
Markey, along with reps from the Children’s Defense Fund, the American Psychological Assn. and the Center for Media Education continued to press for a head-to-head test of the industry’s ratings system vs. a system that provides specific information about the level of sex, violence and profanity in individual shows. Markey said such a test would take less than two months to complete.
Markey and others insisted that the TV ratings system was designed to satisfy the letter of the Telecommunications Act without providing parents with the information they really need to make educated viewing choices for their children. “This isn’t a labeling system for parents, it’s a labeling system for Hollywood,” Markey said.
The V-chip sire also said that a content-based system would make it easier for parents and public-interest groups to attack a specific show for carrying too much violent or sexual content.
‘Good first step’
Markey did acknowledge, however, that the industry’s effort was not a waste of time. “This is a good first step, I want to give (the industry) credit for what they have done.”
Markey’s congressional colleague, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.,) compared the content rating system he supports to the labeling system that is used for packaged foods.
“Everything we eat has a content label on it. Shouldn’t we have a content label on everything that is being fed directly into the minds of our children?” Moran asked, adding, “We are talking about something that is poisoning the minds of our children every day.”