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TV Ratings: Muddle, Boondoggle, or Both?

The much-ballyhooed television ratings system unveiled by the industry last month is now in effect. Judging from the initial results, it's time to pull the plug on what everyone knew was a concept doomed to failure.

You'll recall that the television industry told us their new ratings would accurately measure the suitability of programming for children. There would be four age-based categories for non-kiddie television (TV-G; TV-PG; TV-14; TV-M) and with it, no need for the more comprehensive content-based system proposal. And because of the enormity of the undertaking, each network would rate its own shows.

Right off the bat the problem was obvious: So different are each network's standards that the system is rendered meaningless. There is no "system" at all.

Take David Letterman's "Late Show." CBS has determined it should have the TV-PG rating ("parental guidance [is] suggested ... the program may contain infrequent coarse language, limited violence, [and] some suggestive sexual dialogue and situations"). Letterman's biggest competitor is Jay Leno, but the "Tonight Show," with contents virtually identical to the "Late Show," somehow earns a TV-14 grade ("parents strongly cautioned ... may contain sophisticated themes, sexual content, strong language, and more intense violence") from NBC.

If the 11:35 pm "Tonight Show" gets a TV-14 rating from NBC, how do you suppose a network should rate a drama series appearing on prime time that features in one episode alone: a) a young unmarried couple, naked in bed, grunting, groaning, crunching, scratching, and moaning in the throes of sexual orgasm; b) a married woman making out with a younger man; and c) a prolonged lesbian kiss with the scene fading out as one woman's kisses trail down the other's neck.

Why, if you're ABC, you give that show ("Relativity") a TV-14 rating, too.

On the other end of the spectrum it's equally bizarre. One would imagine that the TV-G rating is reserved for those programs that are perfectly appropriate for youngsters, right? Would you consider an exchange between parents (on CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond") in which the wife informs the husband that she hasn't breast-fed their twins for six months, and he responds, "I thought it was a little less crowded around there!" - appropriate? What about another scene wherein a woman (on NBC's "Mr. Rhodes") reminisces about having sex in her high school's Driver Ed car? Both shows got G ratings from their networks.

But those ratings are the exception to the rule. The networks are driven by the desire to capture the highest possible audiences, and that calls for them to label just about everything TV-PG if they can get away with it.

The January 8 episode of NBC's "Wings" featured a man boasting of having sex with his girlfriend four times a day, adding that the previous night, "we did it on the hood of my El Camino." TV-PG.

That same night on that same network "Chicago Sons" included a character discussing his plans to invite a female colleague to a bed-and-breakfast "where we'll eat pralines off each other's naked bodies." TV-PG.

On January 6, during the 8 o'clock so-called Family Hour, CBS was airing its newspaper sitcom "Ink," in which a reporter gets his hands on a madam's black book of client names and exclaims: "This story has everything! Sex in a car, sex after lunch, sex under water!" Later in the episode another character looks back on her boarding school days when she "sold pictures of the gym teacher on the tumbling mat doing it with the headmaster." TV-PG.

On the January 9 episode of NBC's "Friends," Joey remembers how depressed he felt when he saw a woman he'd broken up with "just walkin' with her friend Donna, laughin' and talkin'. It just killed me." "Yes," responds his roommate Chandler, "but you ended up having sex with both of them that afternoon." TV-PG.

Two nights before that, on ABC's "Life's Work," a character jokes about a man who masturbated while rubbing against a tree. TV-PG.

Just how internally absurd is this ratings system? At the same time that "Life's Work" was cracking jokes about masturbation, CBS was airing "Promised Land," one of the finest family-friendly programs on television today. On this episode, the protagonist saves a woman and her child from the physical abuses they suffer at the hands of the woman's husband, the town sheriff. The rating? You guessed it, TV-PG.

On and on the examples go, but you get the point. It's a senseless system that has done nothing to help the public, and, in fact, is doing everything to confuse them. You say tomato, I say tomahto - let's call the whole thing off.