Parents, pediatricians, and child development experts have long decried the TV content rating system as outdated, inaccurate, and vague.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