TV Shouldn't Turn to MPAA for Guidelines

Barbara Bliss Osborn teaches journalism at Cal State Northridge

As Jane Hall ("TV Industry's Path From Indignation to a Political Reality," Calendar, March 4) made clear, the TV industry conceded to a ratings system only when it seemed that further resistance was futile. Given the months of network belly-aching, the public might well be suspicious of the ratings system industry leaders now say they want to implement.

Personally, I'd never heard a good word about the MPAA ratings from anyone inside or outside the industry until a few weeks ago when the networks first suggested they were going to use them as the basis for their own television ratings system.

What's wrong with the MPAA ratings? For starters, they don't do a particularly good job at what they're supposed to do--help adults screen out programs inappropriate for children. There's a lot at stake here. A TV ratings system is even more important than one for film because television is as much a part of our children's lives as the air they breathe.

The MPAA's G for general audiences rating assumes that a 2-year-old and a 10-year-old see the same show when they watch "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." Anyone who knows anything about cognitive development will tell you that's absurd. Younger children have a much harder time distinguishing fantasy and reality. (That's why cartoons pose legitimate concern. The monsters from outer space are every bit as real as Mom and Dad.)

Younger kids also have difficulty connecting a string of events or drawing inferences. That means that the message contained in an uplifting fable about the battle between good and evil may be entirely lost on a 5-year-old. What the child sees is the battle. It grabs the attention with "acid and amphetamine" visuals--flashy colors, thumping music, shattering sound effects and a relentless pace.

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For years, UC Santa Barbara communications professor Barbara Wilson has advocated a two-tier G rating that reflects this fundamental difference between young (roughly ages 3 to 7) and older children (ages 8 to 12).

But simply breaking out the G rating into two categories won't solve all the shortcomings of the MPAA's system. Designers of the TV ratings should consider combining general age-appropriate categories like the MPAA uses with a numerical index. That's because the MPAA ratings system conflates violence, sex and language.

For years, people have been complaining that the MPAA ratings are more lenient in evaluating a blood-splattered shootout than they are with two teenagers getting it on. Separate numerical indices for sex, violence and language would provide consumers with enough information to actually make informed decisions based on their own values.

Amending the MPAA system in this way would take advantage of what we've learned since the movie ratings system was established more than a generation ago. Clearly the networks have to make a decision.

The question is whether they self-interestedly select a ratings system whose shortcomings are well-known in the hopes that it will have minimal impact on their business-as-usual, or whether they will offer those of us who have made them so rich a small token of their esteem.

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