Label the filth and violence: FCC must fix TV content ratings fraud

Label the filth and violence: FCC must fix TV content ratings fraud
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The Federal Communications Commission has the opportunity to address a sham that has been foisted on television viewers for over two decades. The Commission is currently preparing a report to Congress about how well the television content ratings system works. This should be a brief document and need only read, “It doesn’t.” The report is due out this month.

The system that determines content ratings for television programs emerged from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That law called for the media industry to create a system to rate content of programs so viewers would be alerted to edgy programs containing sexual content, foul language or violence. These ratings are supposed to assist parents in protecting kids from unsuitable content. The V-chip, a technical blocking device in televisions, is designed to block programs rated as unfit for children. The utility of the V-chip hinges on having programs sensibly and accurately rated.


The media industry created the Television Oversight Monitoring Board (TVOMB) in response to the Telecomm Act. The board’s mission is to assess and rate television programs. That board, however, is stacked almost exclusively with self-interested executives of the entertainment industry. The board meets in secret and the decision-making standards are as classified as anything at the CIA. The TVOMB answers to nobody and is accountable only to the executives’ own self-serving interests.

The ratings codes displayed at the beginning of a program are only on the screen for a few seconds. Most viewers have no idea what the coded letters and numbers mean. That’s just fine to the media cronies on the TVOMB. Keeping people in the dark has long been the objective of this flimsy ratings system. The effect has been a continued coarsening of television content. Such sexually charged and violent content is inappropriate for children, of course, and lowers the cultural climate for everybody else. Big media are stooping to establish and legitimize “entertainment” content that pollutes society with cultural nonsense.

The FCC didn’t voluntarily choose this ratings review. The Commission was dragged into it by an order inserted into a Congressional appropriations bill earlier this year. As part of its review, the FCC put out a call for public comments. Over 1,700 comments were received, a hefty number for such an FCC inquiry. A review by the Parents Television Council shows that only one of those hundreds of comments supported the ratings system currently in place. That self-interested support came from a joint statement of the National Association of Broadcasters, the Internet and Television Association, and the Motion Picture Association of America — the people who control the current ratings system and its oversight.

These Hollywood spin doctors insist the ratings system is just fine. They point to an online survey they themselves commissioned that shows 95 percent of parents are satisfied with the accuracy of television ratings. This is a bit much to believe, given that motherhood and apple pie can’t even get that much approval. The industry lobbyists also claim the TVOMB receives an average of only 47 public complaints per year. That sounds good, but keep in mind that most television consumers don’t even know the TVOMB exists, let alone how to register a complaint.


The Parents Television Council, which helped guide Congress into ordering this FCC review, points to a study in the academic journal Pediatrics, which shows television ratings are ineffective in flagging violence, sex and substance abuse. The PTC has provided the FCC with countless examples of overly violent and sexually charged programs, all rated by the TVOMB as suitable for children. Based on those examples, it is clear the Hollywood content raters are seriously disconnected from America’s responsible parents.

The FCC’s mandate in this process is limited. The Commission is only supposed to provide an assessment of this content ratings mess. It is time, however, for the FCC to lead and use this report to recommend a reinvention of this fraudulent system that has never functioned fairly.

The media industry has signaled it will get on its First Amendment high horse if the FCC dares to move beyond issuing a pro forma and industry-supporting report. That’s a ridiculous smokescreen. The FCC is not about to get into the program content business. The cultural corrupters in the media industry can continue to produce whatever gross material they want. The FCC should just see to it that the seedy programs are labeled accurately, as was the idea back in 1996.

If the media industry really thought there was a First Amendment action related to fairly rating television shows, it would have run to federal court back then. The television industry is just worried now about long overdue accountability. The upcoming FCC report must give them reason to worry.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.