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Why TV Content Has Gotten Worse: Networks Control Parental Guidelines System

Most of us have paused in a supermarket to read the back of a food label, and determine whether the nutritional contents are what we want to ingest. Ingredients, calories, carbs, and fat content can impact our health, and we want to make smart choices.

So imagine if the food product labeling was inaccurate. And imagine if the food manufacturer knew it was inaccurate, but realized it was more profitable to mislabel the nutritional value. And then imagine that the Food and Drug Administration allowed the mislabeling to continue because its staff was appointed by the same food manufacturers that mislabel the food packaging.

This very scenario is playing out each and every day on every television set in the nation. Instead of food products, the mislabeled product is television programming. Graphic violence, explicit sexual content and harsh profanity are airing in increasing amounts, yet it is being rated as appropriate for a child.

The implications are great. A vast body of scientific, psychological, and medical research demonstrates that exposure to graphic violence and explicit sex is harmful to children.

Why has TV gotten worse? It’s not that times have changed. The problem lies with the TV content ratings system and the people who were appointed to ensure that the system is accurate.

The ratings system was originally created by Congress as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, to give parents tools to protect their children from harmful TV content. Implementation of the system was done by the TV industry.

But the dirty secret is that the ratings system has provided cover for the TV industry – allowing TV content to become more graphic, more explicit, and more adult over time.

As soon as America got the V-chip, which utilizes an accurate ratings system to block unwanted content, Americans also got some of the most offensive and indecent programming on television. The V-chip, coupled with the ratings system, has allowed those who have wanted to push the envelope to do so – all while dumping the responsibility for protecting children solely on parents.

We analyzed the past 20 years of the TV content ratings system, and found widespread, systemic problems that render the system inadequate for protecting children from graphic sex, violence, and profanity on television.

Our new research found there are fewer programs on prime-time broadcast television rated TV-PG, and there are fewer differences between the content of programs rated TV-PG and those rated TV-14. Even worse, graphic TV content has increased in both amount and intensity and yet all content on broadcast TV is rated as appropriate for a 14-year-old child or younger.

Additionally, there are no TV-MA rated (the highest adult TV rating) shows on broadcast TV. It’s not that some of the shows don’t warrant the MA rating, it’s that the networks are financially motivated not to rate programs properly because most corporate sponsors won’t advertise on MA-rated programs.

In what can only be described as acceptable by Washington, D.C., standards, the board created to oversee the accuracy of the TV ratings – the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board – is controlled by the broadcast and cable TV networks. Not only do the TV networks rate their own TV shows – an inherent conflict of interest – the management of the entire system is run by the same self-serving networks.

Imagine the justifiable outrage if the Food and Drug Administration was comprised of members of the food industry.

And as we approach the 20th anniversary of the ratings system’s creation, it is time for the problems with this system to change. The system must be accurate, consistent, transparent, and accountable to the public.

The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board must answer to the public for enabling and sheltering this flawed ratings system rather than follow its Federal Communications Commission-sanctioned mandate to monitor the system and improve it where necessary.

Parents must be alerted to potentially harmful TV content, and the ratings system can only work if the ratings are accurate.

Congress, the FCC, public health advocates, and parents must insist that the TV content ratings system be accountable to the public and meet the needs of the parents and families it was intended to serve.

A former MGM and NBC Executive, Tim Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.parentstv.org)

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