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TV relents on new code

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from Capitol Hill, several TV industry lobbyists now want to modify the program-rating system so that it provides more info about the sexual and violent content of a program.

Talks are still in the preliminary stages, but sources said industry reps are reacting to the negative reviews the rating system received Feb. 27 during a Senate hearing.

The current system simply assesses programs according to suitability for ages (e.g., TV-G, for viewers of all ages, or TV-14, recommended for viewers at least 14 years-old).

Cablers are leading the way in favor of a more content-oriented system; Fox also backs a system that gives more specific info about the level of sex, violence and adult language in individual programs, sources said.

One source said News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch also favors such a system. Fox officials refused to comment.

Valenti sounds retreat

Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti gave the first hint of retreat on program ratings when he testified at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing, “I have changed my mind. … we’re not inflexible.”

Until his congressional appearance, Valenti has promised that the television industry would stand up to pressure from Congress. Elected officials and public interest groups, including the PTA and the American Medical Assn., have offered a constant stream of criticism, demanding that the TV industry amend the ratings system in favor of a code that provided more data about the level of sex, violence and adult language.

After the hearing, Valenti said he was considering several superficial changes, such as increasing the screen time for the program labels and making the icons larger. But several industry sources said they expect changes will be made to the system itself that will give viewers more info about the sex and violence on each show.

The age-based TV code implemented last January includes six categories, ranging from TV-Y for programs suitable for small children to TV-M, which is slapped on shows appropriate only for adults. (In an unrelated event, the National Assn. of Broadcasters notified the FCC Friday that it is changing the TV-M category to TV-MA. The change is necessary because TV-M is already a copyrighted logo.)

The current TV code is modeled on the MPAA’s age-based ratings system for movies.

Congressional threats

One web source who participated in the year-long effort to write a TV content code said broadcasters were rattled as members of Congress made threats to withhold digital spectrum unless the industry adopted a more content-oriented rating program.

The Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Feb. 27 also made it clear that the industry’s voluntary ratings effort was not going to quiet congressional critics.

Both the House and the Senate saw the introduction of bills in the last two weeks that would ban violent fare during times when kids are likely to be watching, unless a program was slapped with a content rating.

One source suggested the nets are to blame for their current situation since, during the year-long effort to create a rating system, they consistently pushed for generic, rather than specific content labels.

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