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A Low Rating for the Rating System

Sixty-two percent of the public, says a poll taken recently by U.S. News & World Report, and 80 percent of PTA members surveyed even more recently believe that a content-specific ratings system for television is a good idea. So do liberals like Sen. Kent Conrad, Rep. Ed Markey, and Norman Lear. And so do many conservatives, among them yours truly.

But television executives, who so often defend their shenanigans by stating their business is to give the public what it wants, think that in this case the customer is wrong. After months of discussion the industry has announced the new TV ratings formula. It is similar, although not identical, to the age-based system (G, PG, PG-13, and so on) the Motion Picture Association of America devised for the movies. This approach does nothing to address public consternation over the vulgarities and obscenities on television. Moreover, it not only does next to nothing to help parents make responsible choices for their children; it may actually make matters even more difficult.

Here's how. This year, Fox thumbed its nose at the overwhelming majority of parents outraged by gratuitous violence on television by introducing the gory "Millennium." This being one of ninety-six different series on broadcast television alone, the average parent is unfamiliar with the show's content. Applying the new system, "Millennium" will probably receive what will be called a TV-14 rating. So what does Mom do when fourteen-year-old Johnny asks to watch the show? The average mom will allow it, just as she probably will give permission to thirteen-year-old Jenny and maybe even twelve-year-old Tommy. End of discussion.

Why is the industry resisting popular demand for a content-specific rating system? Because it knows that a comprehensive analysis might well chase away parents - and their children - by the millions.

What if there were a different rating system in effect, one based on show content, not viewer age? (The Caucus For Producers, Writers, and Directors, which boasts such members as Lear and Aaron Spelling, endorses such a system.) Under such guidelines, if "Millennium" is rated V+ for frequent, graphic violence, moms everywhere will keep their Johnnys, Jennys, and Tommys from watching it - and Fox can say goodbye to millions of viewers.

No one knows this better than the advertising industry. Frederic Biddle of the Boston Globe points out that "ABC learned the hard way after the...debut of 'NYPD Blue' that...a disclaimer can frighten advertisers." (In the case of "NYPD Blue," the disclaimer, which appears just before the episode begins, is specific, stating that the show contains "adult language" and sometimes "partial nudity.") Biddle continues: "Though advertisers now love ['NYPD Blue'], networks simply don't want to endure [that sort of] trauma again."

Even though the official ratings system may not be content-based, parents searching for guidance regarding what their children should and shouldn't watch, and why, can now refer to the "1996-'97 Family Guide to Prime Time Television," published by the Parents Television Council. The booklet rates nearly one hundred prime time series on the six broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, and WB) for family-friendliness, using a green/yellow/red traffic light system, and provides two or three paragraphs of detail about each show, thoroughly analyzing the objectionable - and sometimes commendable - themes contained therein.

The "Family Guide" not only alerts parents to the tasteless and inappropriate ("Cybill," "Melrose Place") but also the wholesome and worthwhile ("Home Improvement," "Promised Land"). Often a series will offer mixed signals. The NBC sitcom "Mr. Rhodes" extols the merits of good tea chers and adult discipline, but it features language inappropriate for youngsters; therefore, it receives a cautionary yellow light.

It's a sad commentary on things that the "Family Guide" is especially valuable because there is so much garbage on the airwaves. In a better world, such a publication wouldn't be necessary, since TV programming would be, if not family-oriented, at least not aggressively racy or shocking. Such a world, idealistic as it sounds, is not unattainable. It existed on prime time just a generation ago.

Unfortunately, network executive suites have long been populated by the likes of ABC's Bob Iger, who last February, after the White House entertainment summit, told a Washington press conference that a ratings system will not "cause us to change any scheduling attitudes at all. Nor will it cause us to change our broadcast standards."

A sign that Iger may be backing off a little came later when his network moved "Ellen" (red light in the "Family Guide") from the 8 o'clock "family hour" to 9:30. Fine, but in the 8 to 9 p.m. hour one can still find on Iger's network such raunch as "Roseanne" (red), while during the same time slot on NBC, there's "Friends" (red). CBS has "The Nanny" (red) and Fox has "Married?With Children" (red). One down, many more to go.