Study cites 'content creep' in making TV ratings unreliable

Study cites ‘content creep’ in making TV ratings unreliable

Study cites ‘content creep’ in making TV ratings unreliable

A man watches Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on television in Managua, Nicaragua, Feb. 21, 2019. (Credit: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters via CNS.)

A system is only as good as the people who use it. This seems to be true with the TV Parental Guidelines, put into place 20 years ago with the help of the so-called "V-chip" installed in every TV that would allow parents to block certain programming based on its content.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A system is only as good as the people who use it.

This seems to be true with the TV Parental Guidelines, put into place 20 years ago with the help of the so-called “V-chip” installed in every TV that would allow parents to block certain programming based on its content.

Those content advisories are what viewers see in the upper left corner at the start of every prerecorded show, and even many live programs.

But how many people use the V-chip?

In a 2007 Zogby International poll, almost 90% said that they have never used the V-chip or parental controls to block programs, according to the Parents Television Council, which in October issued a report assessing the TV Parental Guidelines. Its conclusions can be summed up in the title: “A Decade of Deceit: How TV Content Ratings Have Failed Families.”

But the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board — known as TVOMB — which conducts its own polling on this and similar matters, says 95% of parents are satisfied with the current system, a figure the council’s report calls “wildly self-serving … thus sheltering the TVOMB status quo from criticism.”

“A Decade of Deceit” said: “TV ratings fail to reflect ‘content creep’ — that is, an increase in offensive content in programs with a given rating as compared to similarly rated programs a decade or more ago. Networks are packing substantially more profanity and violence into youth-rated shows than they did a decade ago.”

Based on the 2017-18 TV season compared to the 2007-08 season — hence the report’s title — the Parents Television Council found a 28% increase in violence and a 44% increase in profanity in shows rated TV-PG.

Profane words cited by the Parents Television Council that were found in TV-PG programming included suck, blow, screw, hell, damn, ass, asshole, bitch, bastard, piss, and the bleeped S-word and F-word. Two other words that evaded censors in 2017-18 both end in “ick.”

“Violence on PG-rated shows included use of guns and bladed weapons, depictions of fighting, blood and death, and scenes of decapitation or dismemberment,” “A Decade of Deceit” said. “The only form of violence unique to TV-14-rated programming was depictions of torture.”

There was virtually no programming on over-the-air network television rated TV-G in 2017-18, and none at all during the November, February and May “sweeps” periods, during which networks air their most popular programs because their ratings help set advertising rates.

The number of prime-time shows rated TV-PG and TV-14, in essence, flipped over the course of the decade. In 2007-08, there were 346 shows rated TV-PG and 273 rated TV-14. In 2017-18, there were 224 rated TV-PG and 383 rated TV-14.

“A 2016 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that the current TV content ratings ‘were ineffective in discriminating shows for three out of four behaviors studied: violence, sexual behavior, alcohol use, and smoking in TV shows,'” “A Decade of Deceit” said. “Even in shows rated for children as young as 7 years, violence was prevalent, prominent and salient.”

“The Parents Television Council does not claim that the TV content ratings system has become less accurate over time. Rather, we maintain that it has never been accurate, and that — despite promises made to Congress and the American people 22 years ago — the entertainment industry has done nothing to improve it.”

To that end, it issued several suggestions.

“A symposium of pediatricians, children’s mental health experts, and child/family advocates should be convened to review the definitions of each age-based content rating in order to ensure that each rating category definition accurately and effectively reflects contemporary knowledge. International best practices should be considered and incorporated into this review,” it said.

“Public service announcements about the TV content ratings system should provide contact information and urge parents to communicate with TVOMB regarding any questions or concerns they might have,” it added. “The mere existence of a TVOMB website and phone number provides absolutely zero value without public awareness.”

In addition, “Every effort should be made by TVOMB to bring more digital distribution platforms to the table. This would include the major independent players in the digital entertainment arena,” listing Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and YouTube, “as well as those that are owned or controlled by TVOMB members,” among them CBS All Access and Disney+.

“It is time for the TV content ratings system to reflect the realities of today’s entertainment media technologies and cultural landscape,” the report added. “If parents are to protect their children from explicit, adult-themed program content, then bold, positive and comprehensive improvements to a 22-year-old system are needed to bring it into the 21st century.”


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