Foes vow to press alternative TV rating system

WASHINGTON – The MPAA’s Jack Valenti and other Washington reps made the TV industry’s program ratings plan official Friday by submitting it to the Federal Communications Commission for review.

The submission, filed jointly by the MPAA, the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the National Cable Television Assn., spends as much time defending the six-tier ratings code as it does explaining it.

The FCC filing notes that the categories it uses to label programming are all defined by the level of sex, violence or adult language in the program. For instance, the TV-14 category is defined as follows: “This program may contain sophisticated themes, sexual content, strong language and more intense violence.”

Opposition heavy

But public interest groups and members of congress opposed to the industry proposal say the definitions are too vague and do not offer specific information about a particular program. Critics of the plan began airing their complaints about the MPAA-like TV code even before the major broadcast and cable networks began tagging their shows with a code on Jan. 1.

“The relevant standard that Congress established for guidelines is a system for ‘rating video programming that contains sexual, violent, or other indecent material about which parents should be informed before it is displayed to children,’ ” wrote the industry reps, adding that the “TV Parental Guidelines … more than meet that test.”

If the FCC rejects the industry ratings system, the agency is authorized to impanel an advisory board to write an alternative code. Although Congress authorized the creation of the board, their is nothing in the law requiring the TV industry to actually implement the ratings system. Congress, apparently with some success, relied on public opinion to force the industry to actually implement and create its own code.

The reps argue that Congress’ first priority was to make sure the industry acted voluntarily and that the FCC was not supposed to “substitute its own judgment of what might be the best system for the industry’s choice.”

A note of insecurity

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC may reject the industry’s proposal if it does not find it “acceptable.” In a few sentences that reveal the depth of industry insecurity about the FCC review of the ratings plan, the reps urge the FCC to adopt Webster’s Third International dictionary’s definition of “acceptable.” According to the reps, the dictionary defines acceptable as “capable or worthy of being accepted,” or “satisfactory: conforming to or equal to approved standards,” or “barely satisfactory or adequate.”

Critics of the proposal remained adamant in their opposition last week. “Nobody supports this proposal beyond Beverly Hills,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education, adding, “We are going to ask industry to make major changes. If they don’t then the FCC has to reject this.”

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) issued a letter signed by 28 members of Congress urging the FCC to hold public hearings on the rating plan. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has planned hearings in mid-February on the ratings plan. Critics of the plan say McCain is “sympathetic” to their cause. McCain’s office did not return calls Friday.

Some of the networks’ ratings decisions have been questioned. For example, two weeks ago, NBC gave the sitcom “Friends” a PG rating instead of a TV-14 rating even though the episode in question featured some of the characters overhearing another character having sex. NBC execs later acknowledged the show should have received a TV-14 rating.

Last week, both “Seinfeld” and “Friends” opened with characters either in bed or frantically racing to the bedroom. Both were given PG ratings. Network execs have said that the system is just getting started and that they are still making their way in trying to determine how certain shows will be rated.

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