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Revamping TV ratings

Media | The federal government listens to parent concerns about how inappropriate content is labeled
by Mary Jackson
Posted 3/01/19, 04:43 pm

Parents, pediatricians, and child development experts have long decried the TV content rating system as outdated, inaccurate, and vague.

Now, their voices may be heard: The Federal Communications Commission announced this week it is seeking public comments on the 22-year-old ratings system, known as TV parental guidelines. Last month, Congress ordered the FCC to review the ratings system and report on its effectiveness within 90 days as part of a recently passed funding bill.

A report released in December by the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe Schools Commission cited TV content ratings as one of numerous issues the federal government should investigate after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, in which 17 people died on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The ratings system, a result of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, established V-chip hardware for new TVs and a letter code that appears for 15 seconds at a show’s start, intended to help parents judge age-appropriateness, alert them to sexual and violent content, and block programs they deem objectionable.

But problems have plagued the rating system since its inception, with the television networks determining their own shows’ ratings. Plus, the names of the members of the 24-member TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board, which oversees the ratings and reports to the FCC, is kept secret, except for its chairman, and it is predominantly made up of entertainment industry insiders.

That has led to growing complaints that Hollywood elites who are more concerned with profit and attracting viewers than with informing parents and protecting children are skewing the ratings system. And streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime don’t even display the letter-coded boxes, relying on parental blocks to filter out unwanted content, while children increasingly watch television programs on devices other than TVs with V-chip controls.

Meanwhile, broadcast networks continue to produce edgier prime-time shows with TV-14 ratings, intended for children over the age of 14, and TV-PG programs with increasing doses of coarse violence and sexual content.

Last year, the Los Angeles–based Parents Television Council found that 80 percent of TV-PG “family comedies” on ABC contained sex talk in front of kids. The PTC also found that TV-PG programs had the same amount of profanity as those rated TV-14, and prime-time shows with gun violence were deemed appropriate for 14-year-olds and sometimes younger.

“We rely on the ratings to be transparent and accurate, but what we have seen repeatedly for two decades is unhealthy content masked as healthy for children,” PTC President Tim Winter said.

A separate 2016 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that shows rated TV-Y7, intended for children ages 7 and up, contained as much violence as TV-MA programs meant for adults. The study’s author, clinical child psychologist Joy Gabrielli, told me that the TV ratings system fails to spell out risk behavior for parents, leaving them in the dark when it comes to selecting shows for their children.

Parental monitoring is critical to reducing children’s exposure to violent and sexual content. Still, Winter said a trustworthy TV rating system is needed: “We are given all the information we need about the food we let our kids ingest. It should be the same with entertainment.”

Numerous studies have linked consistent exposure to violent and sexual media content to aggressive behavior and earlier sexual activity. Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, has produced a few of these studies and petitioned Congress for a TV ratings revamp for decades. He called the Congress-mandated review “long overdue.”

Gentile told me he’d like to see a television ratings oversight board comprised of parents, pediatricians, media researchers, and child psychologists, not just entertainment industry elites. “The culture has changed. It has become more desensitized,” he said. “But kids are still innocent.”

Pure Flix Pure Flix A scene from the film Unplanned

Speaking of ratings …

Girls younger than 17 can get an abortion without parental consent in some states, but they won’t be allowed to watch the pro-life movie Unplanned in theaters because of its R rating. The Motion Picture Association of America announced the rating last week, attributing the decision to some disturbing and bloody images in scenes of abortion. The movie tells the real-life story of former Planned Parenthood facility director Abby Johnson, who had a change of heart and became a pro-life activist.

“We consider the MPAA’s current standards to be deeply flawed, insofar as they allow scenes of remarkably graphic sex, violence, degradation, murder and mayhem to have a PG-13 rating, whereas our film, highlighting the grave dangers of abortion in a straightforward manner, is considered dangerous for the American people to view,” Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, the co-writers and co-directors of Unplanned, wrote in a letter to the MPAA, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The movie, due in theaters March 29, will be the first R-rated release from Pure Flix, the studio behind God’s Not Dead and The Case for Christ.

“Ironically, the MPAA seems to be indirectly endorsing the pro-life position: Namely that abortion is an act of violence,” Solomon and Konzelman told Movieguide. —Lynde Langdon

Associated Press/Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision (file) Associated Press/Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision (file) Emma Thompson

Too late to apologize

In a stinging letter that became public this week, Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson explained to her ex-bosses why she refused to work with a disgraced #MeToo offender. Thompson withdrew from the film Luck, in which she was to voice a character, in January after the film’s studio, Skydance, announced it hired former Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios executive John Lasseter, who left Disney at the end of 2018 over accusations of ongoing inappropriate physical contact with coworkers. His unwanted hugging and kissing was so prolific that at times he had “minders” to rein him in, Variety reported last year.

Skydance tried to quell employee concerns about Lasseter’s hiring by assuring those involved in the film that his contract forbade unprofessional behavior and by holding town hall meetings at which Lasseter apologized for past misconduct. Thompson chided the company for that approach, asking, “If a man has been touching women inappropriately for decades, why would a woman want to work for him if the only reason he’s not touching them inappropriately now is that it says in his contract that he must behave ‘professionally?’” —L.L.

Associated Press/Photo by Jenny Kane Associated Press/Photo by Jenny Kane The YouTube app and YouTube Kids apps on an iPhone

Sinister splice

Parents denounced YouTube this week for hosting harmful videos on its just-for-kids platform. Pediatrician and parent Free N. Hess called out YouTube Kids on her blog a week ago for including videos with violence, inappropriate language, and topics like human trafficking and domestic violence.

Hess first confronted YouTube seven months ago over a video she said included instructions for committing suicide spliced into an episode of a cartoon posted on YouTube Kids. The cartoon was taken down, as were several others Hess reported. Her posts recently drew the attention of national news media and of YouTube, which issued a statement saying it removes problematic videos as quickly as it can, and it has invested in additional parental controls to allow adults to limit what their children view in the app to certain pre-approved channels. The video site also said Thursday that it disabled comments on nearly all videos featuring children in response to reports that pedophiles were leaving inappropriate comments on innocent videos. —L.L.

Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall (file) Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall (file) Robert Kraft

Days in court

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft pleaded not guilty to two counts of misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution in Florida, according to court documents released Thursday.

Kraft, 77, was among hundreds of men charged in a crackdown on massage parlor prostitution and an investigation into human trafficking at Florida spas. If convicted, the owner of the reigning Super Bowl champions could be required to complete 100 hours of community service, attend a class on the dangers of prostitution and its connection to human trafficking, and pay a $5,000 fine. He could also get a year in jail, although that is unlikely, or enroll in a diversion program and avoid a criminal record.

The Boston Globe reported Thursday that Patriots character coach Jack Easterby has resigned. For the past six seasons, Easterby served as the team chaplain, player mentor, and confidant to Coach Bill Belichick. He also led weekly Bible studies for the team. The Globe noted that unnamed league sources said Kraft’s arrest did not “sit well with him.” —L.L.

In memory

Composer and conductor André Previn died Thursday at age 89. He arranged and composed Hollywood film scores, winning four Oscars for his orchestrations of stylish musicals such as 1964’s My Fair Lady. He also conducted renowned orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and London’s Royal Philharmonic. —L.L.

Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77

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