March 2003 – This past January marked the sixth anniversary of the television ratings experiment, and it hasn’t gone well.
Under pressure from Congress to do something about TV sex, profanity and violence, the major TV networks and much of the rest of the television industry adopted an age-based television ratings system in January 1997, adding content-based ratings in October of that same year.
However, the TV ratings system that was supposed to let viewers anticipate objectionable content is often confusing, arbitrary and inaccurate – rendering it, arguably, a complete failure. Moreover, Hollywood actually seems to be using the ratings as cultural “cover” for producing content that has steadily worsened.
It’s not that everything on television is bad – and it’s not that programs with objectionable content are completely devoid of all appeal. In fact, some of the shows with the worst profanity, sex or violence have some of the most poignant themes, best acting, and top writing.
For example, the January 22 episode of Law & Order (NBC) was compelling storytelling, as detectives Green and Briscoe investigated the murder of a high school teacher. The attempt of law enforcement and later city prosecutors to indict and convict a crafty young woman was riveting TV.
Nevertheless, viewers were given a titillating look through a glass doorway with a sheer, see-through curtain at a young woman – who had been having a sexual affair with her teacher – scrambling to cover her bare torso. Thus the show was tainted by the very sort of sordid sexual content that causes the viewing public to squirm.
No help for viewers
NBC gave the Law & Order episode a TV14 rating, and one might guess that the network did so because of the bloody crime scene and troubling thematic elements of a student murdering a teacher and teacher-student sex. However, guesswork about content is not helpful to viewers. Those watching the program had no warning in advance as to the subject matter or its explicitness. And because the TV14 rating carried no additional content rating of “L” for language, the viewer had no idea the program would contain 12 profanities.
It was the addition of these content ratings in October 1997 that led to the hope that the ratings system might be of value to viewers. Whereas ratings like TVPG and TV14 were intended to inform viewers of the expected age-appropriateness of programming, the additional ratings were added to help explain why a show was rated TV14 rather than TVPG. A “D” would be added to indicate sexually suggestive dialogue; “L” for profane language; “S” for explicit sexual conduct; and/or a “V” for violence.
Thus a TVPG rating – without an additional content rating – would appear to indicate a comparatively mild program, as was the case with the January 5 episode of Malcolm in the Middle (Fox). Relatively speaking, the program was fairly innocuous, with teenagers Reese and Allie briefly making out in the back seat while Craig drove them to a concert. The show contained nine profanities.
However, that same TVPG rating was given to the January 2 episode of NBC’s Good Morning, Miami, in which Penny warned Jake to stop competing with Gavin to win Dillon’s heart or he’d never get “laid,” and instead he’d wind up masturbating alone for the next 10,000 nights. If one TVPG is not the same as another, then what good is the rating?
It seems clear that the rating system has merely given Hollywood the go-ahead for out-of-control TV content. For example, it is hard to imagine a sitcom’s sexual fixation being any worse than the December 8 installment of Andy Richter, which was rated TVPG-S. Unmarried Keith and Wendy talk about their sex lives, and Jessica blathers on about her sex-filled relationship with her boyfriend of two weeks. When that turns sour, however, Andy fixes Jessica up with Ben – and they immediately start having sex. When Jessica finds out that Ben has a twin brother, Pete, and that she’s actually been having sex with both of them, she decides she likes the idea. There are extremely crude references to a woman’s genitals and to homosexual anal sex.
The completely arbitrary nature of the ratings system is seen in the often flimsy distinction between a TVPG rating and the supposedly heftier warning of TV14. What is the difference, for example, between the content of the TVPG-S Andy Richter and the TV14 Will & Grace (NBC), which on its December 19 show also contained jokes about genitals and oral sex? Or the November 21 episode – also rated TV14 – in which Karen says Leo has “penetrated the inner circle” as a double entendre for breaking into their group and having had sex with Grace?
Even when a show’s content is¥ worse than a mere TVPG – thus justifying a more stringent TV ratings warning – what makes a network decide that rating should be TV14? That designation means, according to the official network description of the ratings system, that “[t]his program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age.”
Thus the reasonable conclusion is that, for the TV14-rated installment of Will & Grace on January 16, NBC felt that the content was suitable for children over 14. Yet that episode contained the most graphic references possible to male and female genitals, adultery, male sexual arousal and homosexual sex. Also rated TV14: the January 14 episode of Hidden Hills, another sex-obsessed sitcom on NBC. God’s name was taken in vain 19 times during a mere 22 minutes or so of actual noncommercial programming, and the storyline was consistently vulgar. For example, after a drunk Jeanine flashes her breasts to the band at a concert, the viewer is subsequently forced to listen to 12 crude references to that part of her anatomy and constant jokes about her boisterous attempt at self-expression.
It is difficult to imagine many parents who think it is right to allow their 14- or 15-year-old child to watch such smut. But then again, the networks – and the ratings system – are hardly helping parents do the right thing.