October 2004 – “Oh, come on, Mom! Why can’t I go? My friends are going. And it’s only rated PG-13!”
How many parents have had arguments with their children about the appropriateness of a film, only to hear the child defend the movie because of its rating?
The truth of the matter is that movie ratings may not be very effective as a guide for careful parents, who are trying to shield their kids from objectionable material.
MPAA rating system
The movie rating system has been in existence for almost 40 years. It was created as a voluntary system in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), with the expressed purpose of helping parents determine what films are appropriate for their children.
The MPAA rates hundreds of movies every year. According to a recently released study from the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), between July 1, 1996 and December 31, 2003, the MPAA rated over 5,600 films released during that period.
The MPAA employs a panel of adults – who are anonymous to the public and to movie studios – which issues the familiar G, PG, PG-13 and R ratings based on a film’s age-appropriateness. (The NC-17 rating, which replaced the older “X” rating and restricts a movie to an adult audience, is rarely issued by the MPAA.)
The MPAA also makes available limited explanations to provide reasons for a particular rating. For example, the MPAA said the recently released sci-fi movie, Alien vs. Predator, was rated PG-13 for “violence, language, horror images, slime and gore.”
Most parents have given the rating system high marks as a useful tool in helping them discern whether a particular movie is appropriate for their children. According to the MPAA Web site, a recent survey by an independent polling firm noted that 76% of parents with kids under age 13 found the movie ratings either “very useful” or “fairly useful” in making such decisions.
However, parents may be unaware that there are subtle shifts occurring with the ratings. According to the HSPH study, there appears to have been an increase in the amount of objectionable content allowed in the ratings categories, a tendency called “ratings creep.”
The HSPH study examined movies and their ratings between 1992 and 2003, obtained from the MPAA and two independent movie review sources, Kids-in-Mind and Screen It!. (See below.)
“The findings demonstrate that ratings creep has occurred over the last decade and that today’s movies contain significantly more violence, sex, and profanity on average than movies of the same rating a decade ago,” said Kimberly Thompson, the study’s co-researcher and director of the Kids Risk Project.
An article in USA Today highlighted the HSPH study, and noted the practical effect of “ratings creep.” For example, the PG-13 film Forrest Gump, released in 1994, had less sex and violence than 2002’s PG-13 Minority Report.
Thompson told USA Today, “This raises the question of ‘What does PG really mean?’ If parents are basing their experience on [movies] a long time ago, maybe they need to get recalibrated. The reality is, the ratings don’t mean what they did 10 years ago.”
This is not a mere coincidence, according to the HSPH report, but seems to be the product of an actual shift in how the MPAA perceives content. Thompson and study co-author Fumie Yokota, a former HSPH researcher, found “a significant increase of violence, sex and profanity in films over the 11-year period, suggesting that the MPAA became increasingly more lenient in assigning its age-based movie ratings.”
A ‘Trojan horse’?
The phenomenon of ratings creep has come at the same time that economic pressure has grown on filmmakers, something that appears quite suspicious to World magazine culture critic Gene Edward Veith.
“The fact is, economic pressure is forcing Hollywood to make fewer R-rated movies and more fare that can draw in audiences of all ages,” said Veith. “And yet, filmmakers are manipulating the rating system to keep the raunch factor high.”
Veith believes it is not a coincidence. “It’s a clear case of collusion,” he insisted. “The ratings board is clearly under the control of the studios it is supposed to regulate. The board is changing its standards to maximize the studios’ profits.”
Nell Minow, author of The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies, agrees, and contends that this makes the MPAA rating system virtually meaningless as a parental tool. “It was intended to give parents the information they need to decide what is appropriate for their children, based on their values,” she said. “Instead it is cynically manipulated and ultimately deceptive.”
In a USA Today op-ed piece, film critic Michael Medved accused the big film studios of the “flagrant abuse of their own rating system.” He said, “The PG-13 category has become, alas, the Trojan horse in the movie-rating system – allowing wildly unsuitable material to smuggle its way past walls erected by even the most protective parents.”
Even filmmakers sometimes get confused about what a particular rating means. “It used to be you could use the F-word once and still get a PG-13,” said Fox film executive Tom Sherak. “Then it was twice. Now it can be three times, as long as the usage is not sexual. Frontal nudity used to be an X or an NC-17. Now it can be an R. It’s always changing. And it depends on the film.”
The HSPH study recommended that the MPAA follow the approach taken by organizations like Kids-in-Mind and Screen It!, by using clearer criteria in its ratings categories and including more descriptive information about a movie’s content.
It also suggested the development and creation of a “universal media rating system,” which would use the same types of ratings and symbols across the media spectrum: movies, television, videos, DVDs, and video games.
“A single system would provide the simplest tool for parents, if one can be designed and effectively implemented, and it promises greater clarity and transparency in media rating information,” Thompson said.
In the end, however, since information outlets like Kids-in-Mind and Screen It! do exist, the HSPH report considered parents the most effective guardian for children, a conclusion shared by Steven Greydanus of Decent Films (www.decentfilms.com), a Christian movie review Web site. After cautioning readers that the Harvard study is limited only to data from the last decade, Greydanus advises: “Parents shouldn’t count on the MPAA system to do their job for them. No matter what the rating is, parental guidance is always required.”
More about ratings
• www.movieguide.org – MovieGuide magazine
• www.kids-in-mind.com – Kids-in-Mind
• www.screenit.com – Screen It!
Study affirms liberal bias in media
It seems as if the members of the news media are the last ones to get the news – that they are overwhelmingly liberal and, according to an increasing number of Americans, biased in their reporting as a result.
An in-depth study of liberal leanings in the media was conducted by the Media Research Center (MRC), and its results added to the growing body of proof that such bias exists.
The report documented the liberal bias in America’s newsrooms, demonstrating with hard data that journalists (1) vote far more often for liberal presidential candidates; (2) self-identify more often as liberal; and (3) hold more often to a liberal position on key cultural issues.
This clear bias does not go unnoticed by the general public. The MRC study noted that, “In less than 20 years, the percentage of Americans who perceive a liberal bias [in the media] has doubled from 22% to 45%.”
Incredibly, the MRC said a 2000 survey found that 89% of respondents said they thought the members of the media often (57%) or sometimes (32%) allowed their personal views to influence news coverage. Only 9% of respondents answered “seldom or never.”
MRC founder and president L. Brent Bozell has written a new book, Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Meltdown of the Liberal Media, in which he predicts that the media’s obvious bias will cause the public to abandon traditional media outlets.
“The public is fed up with the news media, and they’re going to other sources of information,” he said. “That’s why I predict a meltdown.”
Bozell said data show that, in the last 10 years, the network news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC have lost 50% of their audience. Even cable news channels like CNN and MSNBC have seen audiences scatter. The one exception is the Fox cable news channel, which most observers believe is either “fair and balanced,” as its slogan claims, or leans more conservative.
The MRC study concluded: “The public clearly sees the media’s bias. It is up to the media to acknowledge it.”