Many industries have developed voluntary ratings systems. These systems are intended to provide information to viewers about the nature of the content. The protection of children from exposure to objectionable content is the common justification for ratings. These systems are often developed in the context of a congressional investigation, litigation, or the looming possibility of legislation. Free speech advocates warn that allegedly voluntary ratings systems function as censorship and lead to subjective judgements and misleading warnings.
However, content broadcasters tend to favor voluntary ratings systems since doing so can help avoid costly litigation and industry fines and fees.
In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress provided the broadcast industry a one-year window of opportunity to develop a voluntary rating system for video programs. The industry responded by preparing a joint proposal, which was backed by the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association and the Motion Picture Association of America. The FCC must now determine whether this proposed rating system meets the goal of informing parents about sexual, violent or other indecent material contained in a program. The FCC is currently seeking comment about whether the industry proposal is "acceptable" and whether it satisfies congressional concerns. If the FCC finds that the industry proposal is unacceptable or inadequate, the FCC will develop a new rating system. Comments are due April 17, 1997.
Technical Aspects of Proposal
Each program producer will apply an initial rating, from one of six categories, to a program. However, the final say in assigning program ratings rests with the local television stations. The rating will appear in the upper left corner of the screen for fifteen seconds at the beginning of the show, and after each hour for longer programs. The rating will also be embedded in line 21 of the Vertical Blanking Interval, which enables the "V-chip" to detect the broadcast. Additionally, rating information will be supplied to periodicals such as TV program guides, local newspapers and electronic guides to facilitate parental involvement. Both news and sports shows are exempted from using rating codes.
Oversight of Rating Usage
An Oversight Monitoring Board has been constituted to ensure consistent application of the rating codes, to evaluate their effectiveness and to receive complaints. The 19-member Board is modeled after the Appeals Board for movie ratings, and draws its members from the broadcast TV, cable and program production industries. The Board will also provide information to consumers, producers and distributors.
The use of the rating system is voluntary and no enforcement mechanism other than the Board is included in the proposal. The proposal has not attempted to codify specific types or quantities of violent, harmful or sexually explicit material represented by each rating category.
The Rating Categories
- TV-Y -- All children.
- TV-Y7 -- Directed at children age seven and above.
- TV-G -- General Audience, suitable for all ages.
- TV-PG -- Parental Guidance Suggested.
- TV-14 -- Parents Strongly Cautioned: Generally unsuitable for children under 14.
- TV-MA -- Mature Audience Only: Generally unsuitable for children under 17.