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Trusting TV Ratings – Not Such a Good Idea

Many parents do their best to monitor what television shows their children watch. But fighting against their efforts is the looming fact that Television Parental Guidelines are often misunderstood and underutilized. In 2007, the Kaiser Family Foundation performed a study concerning the overall effectiveness of TV Parental Guidelines. Results showed that, "although more than 80 percent of parents have heard of the TV ratings, most do not understand what they mean."

Though many parents would like a useful and accurate way to supervise the ratings of television shows permitted in their homes, at this point they do not have the proper resources. To resolve this issue we must look to the source of the ratings themselves. Knowing where the problem starts, and who is making the push for change, gives parents a louder voice against the issues revolving around lax TV ratings.

For the few who have not heard of these TV ratings, they work much like movie ratings. However, content descriptors for TV ratings are a bit more complex than the familiar “G” to “R” ratings for films. Television ratings include a suggested appropriate audience, ranging from "Y" meaning for "all children" to "MA" representing the "mature audiences only" category. The big difference though, lies in content labels, represented by letters such as "V" for violence and "D" for suggestive dialogue. Television shows may include as many content labels as necessary.

The confusion begins, however, when these content labels are not properly assigned. Evidence of this perplexity comes from front runners in the fight against inaccurate TV ratings, the Parents Television Council; the group that functions under the motto, "Because our Children Are Watching." This council "aims to provide parents with the tools they need to make informed television viewing decisions."

In March 2007 the PTC found that "67 percent of the shows reviewed that contained potentially offensive content lacked one or more of the appropriate content descriptions." Needless to say, there are flaws in the system leading several commentators to claim that "TV Parental Guidelines are confusing and are applied inaccurately and inconsistently to television programming."

The Children's Media Policy Coalition claims, "The prevalence of inconsistent and inaccurate age-based and content-based ratings should not be surprising" because television networks assign ratings to their own programs. In fact, there is "an element of self-interest at play in allowing the networks to rate their own programs. Networks are financially motivated to under-rate their programs because a more restrictive rating could scare off advertisers," says Katherine Kuhn, author of The Ratings Sham II report for the Parents Television Council.

Perhaps we should not assume that the problem starts and remains within television networks themselves. Among other aspects of television, the TV Parental Guidelines are regulated by an independent U.S. government agency called The Federal Communications Commission, which is overseen by Congress. The commission claims to be "committed to being a responsive, efficient and effective agency… [that] regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable."

As regulator of "communication by television," ensuring the accuracy of TV ratings falls to the lot of the FCC. But who guarantees that the FCC is doing its job? In this case, we turn to the Parents Television Council for aid. Members of the PTC started the battle against inaccurate TV Ratings back in 2005, drawing awareness to the issues with today’s television rating system in a PTC publication titled "The Ratings Sham."

Since then the battle has continued, with very little progress toward changing or improving Television Parental Guidelines. The PTC commented on the issues again in 2007 with Ms. Kuhn’s follow-up report, The Ratings Sham II: TV Executives Still Hiding Behind a System That Doesn’t Work. Thanks to the work and research of the Parents Television Council, the Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007 required the FCC to submit a report on the "examination of advanced blocking technologies and existing parental empowerment tools." Again in 2009, PTC research "exposed the proliferation of sex, violence, and profanity in TV programming [and] demonstrated the failure of the TV ratings system to adequately inform parents about program content." It seems we are chasing the FCC and TV networks in circles here!

Parents are fed up with the hide-and-seek games that television networks are playing. An article published in June 2011 by Bill Hendrick that appeared on WebMD Health News claims that parents are both concerned about current media content and believe that improvements to the rating system would aid them in making decisions regarding media and their family. Mr. Hendrick states: "A majority of parents surveyed felt there should be a universal rating system for all media." Such a system would apply to television, movies, music, videogames, websites, and even games played on handheld devices. That sounds like a win-win situation for parents and TV networks!

So what should parents do in the down time, while they wait for the FCC to come out from their hiding place?

Start by getting to know the television shows that your children watch. View the shows with them, or even preview the show before allowing your children to see it. Make use of the recording live TV feature available with most TV service packages today. Research television shows online to learn more about the typical content and overall message of the show. Finally, consider purchasing a TVGuardian system for your family. TVGuardian filters out foul language from live television with several filter settings including filters for offensive content related to religion and sexual references.

There are ways to protect your family against the dangers of today’s media, regardless of the flaws in the Television Parental Guidelines system. Do your part to support the efforts of the PTC, and continue to protect your family to the best of your ability.