After all the fuss, net content is relegated to back burner

Five years after the networks relented to political pressure and incorporated TV content ratings, most viewers still don’t care.

Programming execs say the code has had no effect on what winds up airing. Standards and practices execs say few, if any, viewers inquire about the ratings. And studies prove that awareness of the system among parents continues to decline.

None of this surprises “Law & Order” exec producer Dick Wolf, one of the few industry players to speak up against the 1996 election-year push by lawmakers to rein in content.

“There are very few times in my life where I’ve been 1,000% correct,” Wolf says. “This was one of them. Nobody cares. Take a poll, and see if anyone even knows how to activate their v-chip.”

Actually, someone already has: According to a study released over the summer by the Kaiser Family Foundation, just 17% of parents who own a v-chip (or 7% of all parents) claim they use it to block programming.

Even more, 53% of parents who bought a TV after January 2000 (when v-chips became mandatory in all sets) don’t realize that their TV is equipped with the technology.

Meanwhile, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, just 50% of parents are aware of the parental guidelines rating system –down from 70% in 1997 when the ratings were first introduced.

And an internal NBC report reveals that three-fourths of adults aware of the parental guidelines don’t report using them.

“The reality is, this was never an issue that parents cared about,” says one industry source. “This was something that only 10 people in America cared about, members of Congress and children’s advocacy groups. Were it not for (Rep.) Ed Markey and (Sen.) John McCain and a few other people trying to grab onto some political hot potato, this thing would have never happened.

“What’s frightening is how an entire industry was brought to its knees by a few pandering politicians.”

Harsh, perhaps. But enough time has passed from the birth of TV’s content code that it’s easy to forget just how nastily the debate evolved.

It all started with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which included a proviso that all TV sets begin carrying v-chip technology to block out questionable programming.

President Clinton and a wide variety of lawmakers then quickly began banging the drum for content guidance that would be used in conjunction with the v-chip. It took only days for the nets to fold their hand and agree to develop –”voluntarily,” of course — a ratings system.

The nets had too much at stake in Washington — such as stopping the government from auctioning off the broadcast spectrum — to fight a losing content battle. The nets got to keep their spectrum, but they also gave in and agreed to start rating their programming.

Motion Picture Assn. Of America president Jack Valenti, who came up with the ubiquitous movie rating system in the mid-1960s, was again dispatched to formulate a system for the small screen.

The resulting cavalcade of classifications (TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-MA) went into effect on Jan. 1, 1997. Nets, cablers, syndicators and stations began flashing ratings icons — those little black boxes inscribed with the codes — at the beginning of each show.

It wasn’t over. Bowing to more pressure, the webs (with the notable exception of NBC and a few cable outlets) added an additional dollop of alphabet soup (S for sexual content, D for suggestive dialogue, L for language and V for violence) later that year.

Helplessly watching as their corporate bosses bowed to D.C. pressure, net execs worried aloud whether the ratings would have a devastating impact on primetime.

“In my 20 years in broadcasting, I have never been more afraid than I have been of the ratings issue, and trust me, I’ve had a rocky career,” then-NBC entertainment prexy Warren Littlefield said at the time.

Valenti says the TV ratings have experienced an acceptance level similar to how the film ratings were first introduced.

“The first couple of years, very few people knew about the movie ratings; the longer we stayed in the marketplace, the more people learned about us,” Valenti says. “By any certifiable measure, the (TV) ratings have been accepted, they’re being used, and if more people learn that they have a v-chip, more people will use it.”

Valenti does have a point: Contrary to other studies, the Kaiser report did find that 56% of parents had used the TV ratings system.

But in the end, all of the sturm and drang was much ado about nothing. The content issue faded into the background once the nets adopted the system.

“I don’t think it’s a question of them being forgotten, it’s a question of them never being known enough in the first place,” says Children Now president Lois Salisbury. “We always knew that this system was going to require a learning curve and a concentrated effort to educate parents on what they are and how to use them. That never happened.”

And despite concern to the contrary, the content ratings have had no real effect on programming decisions.

“For those who are really proactive in choosing a slate of programming for their family, it’s there for them to utilize,” says Roland McFarland, VP of broadcast standards and practices at Fox. “But there’s been no real ramifications for TV.”

According to Wolf, that’s because TV has always policed itself, even before the content ratings. Forget about the v-chip. What really affects change in primetime are the daily ratings reports from Nielsen Media Research.

And regardless of what politicians might want to believe, network TV had already toned down its violence quotient in response to viewer taste.

“The reality is, in network primetime programming, it’s so much less provocative than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Wolf says. “On ‘Miami Vice,’ if we had a story problem, we just threw in a shootout. But in 12 years, the cops on ‘Law & Order’ haven’t shot their guns once. There’s a different ethos in what you show on TV. TV ain’t that bad.”

Of course, that kind of statement probably angers the moral crusaders on Capitol Hill, who have forged entire re-election campaigns around the evils of pop culture.

“It was a false solution to a false problem,” one network topper says. “The v-chip should truly be in the parents’ brain. What all those people were really hoping for is that the nets would go out of business and they could put on ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ “

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