PTC: TV Networks Get 'F' for Ratings

According to Hollywood, it's okay for 14-year-old kids to watch a woman die while being raped.   

That's the bottom line in a new study released by the Parents Television Council (PTC), which details the failure of broadcast television networks to properly rate their programming during prime time viewing hours.

The PTC study looked at 541 hours of prime time broadcast entertainment programming which comprised 608 individual programs.  Virtually all programs reviewed were rated either PG or TV-14, meaning that in the television industry's eyes they are suitable for 14-year-olds – even the woman who asphyxiates while being orally raped, which was shown on the CBS hit show C.S.I. Miami in an episode rated TV-14.


The TV ratings include guidelines for age-appropriateness (TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA) and content descriptors to indicate the presence of specific types of content (“S” for sexual content, “V” for violence, “L” for coarse language, and “D” for suggestive dialogue). 

The PTC ratings study found that none of the six broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW, and MyNetwork TV, consistently used the content descriptors they tout as parental control tools. Two-thirds (67 percent) of the shows reviewed by the PTC contained potentially offensive content and lacked one or more of the appropriate content descriptors. 

Other major findings:

·    54 percent of shows containing suggestive dialogue lacked the “D” descriptor.

·    63 percent of shows containing sexual content lacked the “S” descriptor.

·    42 percent of shows containing violence lacked the “V” descriptor.

·    44 percent of shows containing foul language lacked the “L” descriptor. 

·    100 percent of ABC's TV-14 rated programs lacked one or more descriptors.

·    92 percent of NBC's TV-14 rated programs lacked one or more descriptors.

·    73 percent of CBS's TV-14 rated programs containing sexual content lacked the “S” descriptor.

Problems with TV ratings have been documented since the voluntary system was adopted in the 1990s. Because networks and sometimes even producers rate their own shows, ratings are not applied consistently and accurately. 

Networks also have a financial incentive to underrate programming: to avoid scaring off top-tier advertisers. Many corporate advertisers, particularly those that market or sell family products and services, are reluctant to sponsor programs with offensive content. 

Since it began monitoring ratings, PTC has reported a dramatic increase in both the frequency and explicitness of sexual content, violence and foul language on prime time broadcast television.  Public opinion surveys taken since the adoption of the TV ratings have also documented growing discontent over TV content.

TV ratings are important because the entertainment industry hopes to avoid government regulation by providing parents with the resources needed to protect their children from harmful and inappropriate messages.  Ratings are intended to trigger parental controls like the V-chip, allowing parents to block channels or programs with inappropriate age ratings or content. 

However, studies by PTC and other organizations, including the Kaiser Family Foundation, consistently show that many adults are unfamiliar with the ratings and the V-chip. A recent Zogby poll reports that only 15 percent of consumers use the V-chip, even though Hollywood has spent $550 million on public service announcements to educate consumers and parents about the TV ratings and the V-chip.

TV ratings warrant scrutiny because the entertainment industry is fighting a multimillion dollar battle in the courts of law and public opinion against the Federal Communications Commission and federal broadcast decency laws.  ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and Hearst-Argyle Television have filed suit in federal court to overturn decency laws, arguing that the ratings and V-chip have rendered the laws obsolete.  In effect they are suing for the “right” to air unedited profanity, including the f-word, at any time of day.

PTC's study shows that the networks' premise – that decency laws are outmoded in light of new technologies – is false.  When 67 percent of programming on prime time broadcast TV is improperly rated, it's clear that the ratings system and V-chip are not protecting children and families from offensive content. 

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.