The ‘Powers’ that be: Ratings serve parents

Jack Valenti

Let us speak of the voluntary movie rating system.

The latest epiphany centers on the so-called rush from R ratings to PG-13 ratings, with the new “Austin Powers” movie as the poster child for that “trend.” Indeed, Variety came up with a scorecard that revealed R-rated films were down in percentage, and PG-13 were up, from 1998 to this moment.

Alas, facts intrude.

The key dates are the current months, not several years ago. Thus it is that from January to June 2002, the percentage of PG-13-rated films is down and R-rated films are up compared to the same period of 2001: 84 PG-13 movies in the 2001 period, 70 in the 2002 timeframe.

There is no mystery to this, even to those conspiratorially enabled. More films this year had within them content that invited an R, and fewer films were introduced to PG-13, even after voluntary editing.

Is “Austin Powers” rated correctly at PG-13? In my view — and among a good many movie critics — the answer is yes.

Brian Miller of the Seattle Weekly wryly observes that there is more PG in it than PG-13. Other critics agree that sans sex and violence, “Powers” is rightfully rated. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post agrees that the rating is correctly posted, declaring the movie “hilariously funny.”

What matters is that we too often forget to whom the rating system was originally (and currently designed) to serve. Not producers, or distributors, or writers or movie reviewers or self-anointed social philosophers and observers of the daily scene. It was created to serve parents, to give them some advance cautionary warnings so that parents can make their own decisions about which movies they want their children to see, or not to see. Which is why in print ads each film carries the reason for the rating, and why delivers ratings reasons on the Net.

Rating films is not akin to Euclidean geometry. The rating board confronts subjectivity — a vapory, inexact witness and, at best, an imprecise measure.

What is too much violence or sensuality or language? To the question “What is enough?” William Blake answered, “When it is more than enough.”

Try getting your arms around that.

The rating system will be 34 years old on Nov. 1. Nothing lasts that long in this brutish, volatile marketplace unless it is offering some kind of benefit to the people it aims to serve — that is, parents.

Every year since 1969, the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, N.J. has conducted a poll of some 2,600 respondents, under strict market research protocol.

For the past 12 years, more than 70% of the parents with children under 13 have found the rating system to be “very useful” to “fairly useful” in helping them guide the moviegoing of their young children. Last year that approval level reached 78%. That is a huge parental embrace by whatever gauge you employ.

In its long life, the rating system has rated more than 17,000 films. It’s impossible to please everyone when each person views life through his or her personal lens, but I always know a rating decision was constructed fairly and even-handedly by those who made it.

There is but one standard by which the rating system must be judged. That standard is integrity, defined as always and in every way making rating decisions based entirely on the content of a film seen through a parent’s eye — and nothing else.

I am immensely proud of this unbroken, unsoiled journey through the years, wherein even the system’s most fierce critics have never accused the rating board of anything that would smell of deceit.

Integrity is the platform from which spring the endurance, believability and value of the system.

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