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From bad to worse

The TV industry itself largely enforces the parental guideline ratings, with predictable results for content

From bad to worse

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

The next time you turn on the TV, notice the small box on the upper left side of the screen. In it, one of seven codes will appear. A series of white letters might display beneath. Fifteen seconds later, the icons are gone.

The code in the box is the TV parental guidelines rating—something that’s been around for 20 years but has never really caught on with Americans. Still, even if most viewers don’t notice the boxes, millions use them unawares. That’s because streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime use the parental ratings to determine which shows to block from family profiles.

Who has the power to rate television content? WORLD took a look and discovered an opaque system where TV networks rate their own shows and sit on the board providing oversight. The result: Risqué TV-14-rated content has gradually overtaken family programming, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) intervening only for extreme cases of indecency.

We’ll look first at the ratings system and how it got here. Then we’ll introduce you to the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board (TVOMB), a secret committee the FCC has tasked to ensure networks stick to the seven sanctioned official ratings. (TVOMB refuses to disclose the identities of its members, lists only a post office box for an address, and bars the public—including even FCC officials—from its meetings.) Then we’ll examine what parents can do.

WHAT DO THOSE SEVEN OFFICIAL RATINGS in the little box mean? The TVOMB reserves two for children’s programs (TV-Y, TV-Y7). The others roughly correspond to the well-known movie ratings system, with TV-G the equivalent of a G movie rating, TV-14 similar to PG-13, and so forth.

Or to put it more graphically: TV-G programs allow pecks on the cheek, TV-PGs passionate kisses in a park, and TV-14s allow partially clothed couples to fondle in bed. The same gradations apply for violence and language.

As to how we got to this place, you have to go back to the 1990s. Politicians wanted to appease parents upset about television’s creep toward ever more salacious programming. Technology—in the form of the V-chip—promised a way to do that. In 1996 Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which mandated a voluntary TV ratings system to work in conjunction with software built into every television set (larger than 13 inches wide) produced after 2000.

Looking back, TV in the late ’90s was relatively tame—although it didn’t appear so at the time. The major networks scheduled 27 TV-G series during prime time. Contrast that with 2017, when just one TV-G show—NBC’s Little Big Shots—plays on the prime-time schedule. Meanwhile, edgier shows with coarse sexual and violent content have grown exponentially.

Twenty years ago racy TV-14 programs ran mostly in the 10 p.m. hour. Now they dominate network lineups, as broadcast television competes with cable for the viewers advertisers most want to reach. On a sample week in March, 44 of 72 programs earned a TV-14 rating. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, one of today’s most popular TV-14 shows, airs at 8 p.m. on the East Coast.

Not all TV-14 shows are created equal. NBC, for example, assigns the rating to the family drama This Is Us. It contains mature situations parents might need to explain to kids. On the other extreme was VH1’s Dating Naked, which (until its cancellation in April) showed awkward first meetings on the beach, co-ed naked volleyball, and adults talking about each other’s genitalia.

TV watchdogs say this wide difference in the TV-14 category confuses parents, makes the system unreliable, and lets networks get away with marketing more salacious content to teens. Prime-time TV has become a desert of family programming, but TVOMB doesn’t keep track of such things: Its job is merely to ensure the uniformity and accuracy of the ratings and to respond to viewer complaints.

TVOMB keeps no historical statistics of TV ratings and does not talk about trends or content unless it relates directly to a show’s rating. Remember: Politicians were looking for a system that warned parents about objectionable content before kids began watching an episode. Nothing in the law set a quota for family-friendly programs. As the culture has coarsened, so has television.

TVOMB has a maximum of 24 members. Eighteen spots are reserved for industry insiders from broadcast and cable networks and for content producers. Up to five representatives come from public interest groups like the National PTA and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Currently National Association of Broadcasters head Gordon Smith chairs the board and chooses the public interest representatives.

Aside from the organization names, which are listed on TVOMB’s website (tvguidelines.org), no public records show individual member names, positions, or family demographics. The four public interest groups were chosen for their devotion to children’s interests; but one is defunct, one refused to reveal the identity of its representative, and the other two declined to comment.

The last member on the list is WCOV-TV, a local Fox affiliate based in Montgomery, Ala. A representative of the station admitted he was puzzled why a “mom and pop station” like his would serve on such a board, especially when its parent organization (Fox) was already represented.

So why all the secrecy? WORLD could get only one member of the ratings board to speak on the record. Cindi Merifield said she’s fine having her name publicly associated with TVOMB. Her organization, Pause Parent Play, went defunct years ago so she doesn’t exactly represent parents anymore, but her institutional knowledge (as one of the architects behind the ratings system) probably explains why she’s still there: “It was really hard to get it signed into law. So personally I’m very proud of it. … I see no reason at all why they wouldn’t use my name.”

Evans Vestal Ward/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Steve Harvey (left) hosts Little Big Shots. (Evans Vestal Ward/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Merifield says TVOMB isn’t being intentionally elusive, but privacy allows for greater productivity. That makes sense since networks rate their own shows. If they don’t have to debate the ratings with outsiders, the whole process goes faster.

The Parents Television Council (PTC), though, says the lack of transparency is concerning because it has allowed TVOMB to remain insulated from public scrutiny. Tim Winter, president of the watchdog group, says parents assume TVOMB is an independent board that rates shows and find it “unfathomable” that the networks themselves are in control.

As clandestine as TVOMB’s choice not to disclose member names seems, it doesn’t violate the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The rules say nothing about transparency, accountability, or equal industry-to-outsider board distribution.

Other ratings systems operate the same way. Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), video gaming’s counterpart to the TVOMB, also bans public and press from its board meetings and does not disclose the identities of its members, according to spokesperson Carol Rogalski. Until the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated revealed the identities of Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) raters, they also operated under a cloak of secrecy.

TVOMB administrators and board member Merifield argue that independent surveys conducted at TVOMB behest show parents are happy with the system. The board seldom hears from viewers—it gets just 300 complaints a year and of those, only 8 percent are related to ratings. That means the board gets just 24 complaints a year related to ratings, which seems paltry when you consider the thousands of episodes rated each year.

Ron Batzdorff/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia star in This Is Us. (Ron Batzdorff/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

MUCH OF THE STUFF parents find objectionable on TV won’t ever come to the attention of the FCC. It only acts on the most egregious cases, but even then the pendulum appears to be swinging in favor of TV networks.

Playing the sheriff’s role regarding all things broadcast, the FCC still has the authority to censure and slap stiff fines against TV networks for indecent content. But the FCC’s definition of indecent and offensive content has hit a snag in U.S. courts, leaving the body in a holding pattern when it comes to disciplining networks.

The FCC didn’t issue any indecency-related judgments in 2016, and just one in 2015—to a local TV station in Virginia for airing scenes from a porn video during the 6 o’clock news. This is a far cry from 2004 when the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” overwhelmed the FCC with complaints, in turn worrying network executives about airing risqué content.

In both cases, networks took issue with the FCC over what’s now called “fleeting nudity” (and in other cases, “fleeting expletives”). The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC indecency policy in 2010 on fleeting expletives, saying it could infringe upon a network’s freedom of speech and adding that the FCC’s guidance on what is considered offensive was “unconstitutionally vague.”

FCC media spokesman Will Wiquist confirmed the indecency numbers were accurate and up to date, but declined to comment further on FCC enforcement actions. The history of FCC and court rulings, though, does not inspire confidence in governmental action. Whether parents use parental ratings or not, here’s a better alternative: Parents could watch shows with their children, talk through difficult content, and not allow some programs.

The best step of all might be to limit screen time. A Common Sense Media study published in December 2016 reported that parents—not children—were mostly responsible for using “screen media” more than nine hours per day, mostly for entertainment.

So if in doubt, turn it off.

—Juliana Chan Erikson is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career class.

Comments

  • CoolerByTheLake's picture
    CoolerByTheLake
    Posted: Fri, 04/28/2017 09:37 am

    Great article. I've watched the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated,  the clansdestine nature of the MPAA is very troubling. The need for parents to pay attention to the media their kids consume has never been greater. The days of the family gathered around the living room TV and watching T.G.I.F. are long gone. We need to be teaching our kids descernment and control, that means knowing what is being consumed on the screens in their hands. 

  • Katie
    Posted: Fri, 04/28/2017 10:12 am

    Constant vigilance is required, because even when a parent has determined a particular show is acceptable and approves it, the commercials might still be inappropriate! This seems especially true when watching shows online, where they play different commercials than on TV. Often the commercials are for other shows on the network - shows the parent has definitely NOT approved.

  • L and T in Illinois
    Posted: Sat, 05/20/2017 12:47 pm

    Ms. Erikson points out the difficulties of the entertainment rating system and attempted reforms; but ratings cannot be trusted and should be just one of several avenues for entertainment choice.  Why are we surprised at the deficiencies when ratings are under control of the entertainment industry? We expect the movie industry to protect us and our children from moral corruption.  It won’t.  Doesn’t it make sense for parents to have control of what they choose to allow or disallow?  The V-chip has always been under control of the entertainment industry because it is ratings-dependent. It would make more sense to cut our dependence on ratings and revise the V-chip to give parents complete control of channel, time, program, series, etc.  Ratings will be there if some want to use them, but we should be able to ignore ratings and make independent decisions about what is appropriate or not for our family members to access.