NC Family president John Rustin talks with Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council (PTC), about a new PTC report that analyzes the TV Content Ratings System and reveals that the current system is inadequate to protect children against the increasing amount of sexual, violent and profane content on television.
INTRODUCTION: Tim Winter is president of the Parents Television Council (or PTC), a nonpartisan media watchdog and education organization. Tim is going to be talking with us today about a new PTC report that analyzes the past 20 years of the TV Content Ratings System. The report reveals that the rating system is really inadequate to protect children against the increasing amount of graphic sex, violence, and profanity on television today.
JOHN RUSTIN: I want to just start with an introductory question that many of out listeners may have, which is: What is the TV Content Ratings System? How did it come about, and what is it intended to do?
TIM WINTER: The TV Content Ratings System is much like the motion picture ratings system that parents have been using for many decades. It is intended to guide parents along in terms of making sure that what they consume in television programing is consistent with the values that the family has. And the rating system came about in the 1990s, so we’re about 20 years old now with the system, and it was really in response to an increasing level of concern by parents about the amount of edgy, explicit and adult-themed television programing that was airing. Congress got behind the effort, and this was basically an agreement by the television industry to kind of call off the hound, as it were, in Washington DC, to give them a little bit of political cover by putting this content ratings system into place. It then allowed parents to make better choices. It also allowed parents, with the advent of the technology component called the V-chip, which is installed in every TV set, to program their TV sets to block content based on the content rating that they might feel is harmful or doesn’t square with their family values. So that’s kind of the genesis of how the TV Content Ratings System came about.
JOHN RUSTIN: Let’s talk about the PTC report, which does examine the last 20 years of the TV ratings system. How was the report designed and what specific information did you look into?
TIM WINTER: Here at the Parents Television Council we have a trained staff lead by a Ph. D. researcher, and the staff records every hour of primetime broadcast television, all the different networks, and we record it digitally, and we have trained analysts come in the next morning to their workstation, and they review the content that aired on the previous evening. Basically, we have a very robust system here that allows us to track and then report on trends that we’re seeing. And one of the trends that we have seen now for quite some time is that the rating system is frequently inaccurate. When it’s inaccurate, it’s only inaccurate in one direction; that is, they rate content too young, but never too old. So, they never say, “This is bad for kids even though it may be programmed for them.” The report was designed to really display in empirical data how things have happened over the last 20 years with this content ratings system. Is it truly serving parents as it was ostensibly put in place to do, or is it really giving political continued cover for the TV networks? And sadly [the latter is] what we found.
JOHN RUSTIN: The ratings system is actually run by the TV networks themselves. This really does sound kind of like the “fox guarding the hen house” scenario. Would you consider that to be an accurate assessment, and can parents really rely on this system to truthfully portray the type of content that is contained in specific programs?
TIM WINTER: I think your analogy is perfect. This is the fox guarding the henhouse. I can’t imagine any other system to protect consumers from potential harm that is allowed to be implemented, managed, and run by the very industry that you’re trying to watchdog. And if the information that says here’s what’s in this show that is potentially harmful is entirely up to the producer of that product to disclose, without any consequence of being inaccurate, I don’t think we’d stand for that in any other type of industry or any other type of product. Unfortunately, it is something that’s an inherent conflict of interest, and the TV networks themselves decide what to rate the show. We have seen the same show in the past airing on two different networks that was rated differently. We have seen the same show and the same episode, unedited, air on the same network, and they gave it two different ratings, once when it first aired, and once when it repeated. So, even the networks themselves seem either unable or unwilling to really make sure that there is a consistency, and a transparency, and clarity in what this system really [provides].
JOHN RUSTIN: The Parents Television Council study found that there are increasingly fewer programs on TV that are rated PG. Talk about that a little bit. What kind of decrease have we seen in PG programming, and why do you think that is?
TIM WINTER: It’s a decrease, and it’s not just PG; it’s also the G-rated. You know, parents think of G and PG-rated material as something that is almost always appropriate for their children to watch. And you think about a movie, you think G and PG goes back to the old Walt Disney days, you know “Hermie the Love Bug,” or “Cars” or “Toy Story,” things that the kids can watch. But up until just the last few weeks, there had been no G-rated television shows on the air for several years. And it was recently that NBC put a G-rated show series back on the air, and it’s called “Little Big Shot,” and it’s a reality show with Steve Harvey as the host, and what’s interesting is the show’s doing very well in the ratings. When you have something that really is family friendly, and it’s it has good production value, it’s good writing and good directing and so forth, it tends to do very well. And so G and PG have been all but eliminated from the programming schedule. The reason why is, I think, because there are so few people in Hollywood who think that’s the cool right thing to do, that there’s really a market for that. Here in Hollywood it’s almost like a super-peer group of producers who are always watching what the other guy is doing, and everybody’s trying to outdo the other guy. And if one person has an edgy show, then the next person wants to be a little bit more edgy. And that’s what they think of as success, rather than what’s the biggest possible audience I can gather, and make the network the most money with the advertisers. And, unfortunately, the mentality here is that PG-rated stuff is not what people really want, but boy, when it’s done right, the audience measurement devices sure suggest otherwise. They show that parents really do want something that they can watch together with their kids.
JOHN RUSTIN: In addition to the decrease in the number PG rated programs, from what I understand in the report, we’re also programs that among programs that are rated PG and TV-14, there seems to be less and less distinction between those. Aren’t these ratings supposed to designate some pretty significant differences in terms of content, but actually it seems like it’s getting very muddled?
TIM WINTER: That’s exactly right, it is muddled, and I believe it is intentional. I don’t think that there is true animus on the part of the networks in rating these things. What I do know is that those who rate the content of the program work for the same CEO who approved the edgy production of graphic, explicit content to begin with. And the higher the age rating, the older the age rating of the TV content, two things happen: a lot of parents say, “Well, I’m going to try to follow that guideline, and so I’m not going to allow my children to watch it,” and then the other thing is that advertisers are a little bit squishy when it comes to explicit material, and sponsoring it. So, there’s a double conflict of interest for the networks to rate things the way that they really should be rated based upon the content, and what used to be totally unacceptable for television is now acceptable. Maybe it becomes, “Well, we can put it on earlier, and then earlier, and we can probably rate it for kids.” There seems to be a constant desensitization, not just with the audience, not just with the children that are watching this stuff, but also with the standards of an age rating. I think the network executives themselves are desensitized, and there’s a creep on their part to rate things younger and younger, again, not intentionally trying to hurt children, but I think they’ve just become immune to the stuff that they’re supposed to be rating.
JOHN RUSTIN: Perhaps the most worrisome finding from the PRC report is that graphic content on television is increasing significantly in frequency and intensity. Tell us about this finding and give us some examples, and let’s keep it rated G or PG for our listeners, but what are some examples of the type of content that you are talking about?
TIM WINTER: Here’s the irony: it’s difficult for me to make sure I’m respecting the audience I am speaking to with G-rated content when we’re talking about content that’s adult themed and explicit. We’re talking about gruesome, horrific, violence. It used to if there was violence shown, there was always a consequence for it, and it was never shown in a graphic, gruesome, gory, blood-drenched kind of way, and that has now changed. You now have sexual conduct that perhaps back in the day, you’d see the light turn out in the bedroom, and then they’d go to a commercial or some other scene, but now they keep the camera in the bedroom, and they’re showing all the stuff that’s going on. And the profanity! It’s not just the profanity and how it’s used, but we’re now even seeing children in the shows using the harsh profanity. So, it is every type of content…. Sadly what the report’s showing, there’s more of [the objectionable content], and it’s increasing in amount, and it’s increasing in intensity, and it’s now being rated as appropriate for children to consume.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know that the Parents Television Council is calling for reforms of the TV Content Ratings System Reform. What does this reform look like on a practical level, and what specific recommendations are you calling for?
TIM WINTER: What we’re asking first and foremost is to make sure that we’re all on the same page here, that we’re all singing off the same sheet, and that the existing system is broken, it doesn’t work, and it is only protecting the industry, not protecting children. You have in Washington DC an oversight monitoring board that is supposed to make sure this content ratings system is effective. The interesting thing is we’ve learned that the the oversight monitoring board is comprised of TV network executives, who are those same people who rate this content inaccurately to begin with! So, imagine if you would, a Wall Street firm that is trying to rip people off but also oversees the rules of the SEC! You have here a system that at the very ground level, it is deceiving parents, and then the oversight monitoring board that is in charge of ensuring the accuracy of the system is every bit as fraudulent as the underlying system.
What we’re calling for is for the existing system to be thrown out. We have a petition on our website, www.parentstv.org, [where] you can sign the petition, and you can take quizzes, and you can see for yourself some of the [incorrectly] rated content. So that you don’t just take our word for it, take a look at the stuff we’re posting [so you can see what is being] rated as appropriate for children, when in fact, it’s not. So these are some of the things that we’re calling on Americans to do, from all across the country, left and center right politically, and from every cultural divide. This impacts everybody, and so we’re asking people to join the fight, lend your name to the petition, and add your voice with ours. We’re going to Washington DC and we’re calling on the FCC to throw out the existing system, and let’s replace it with one that truly serves parents and is accountable to parents.
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