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Warning Signs or Welcome Mats?

Ervin S. Duggan, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, is president and chief executive officer of the Public Broadcasting Service

For several years now, the television industry has been under attack by critics who accuse the networks of condoning violence and immorality by airing programming saturated with violence and sex and by failing to air programs designed to educate and uplift young viewers.

The debate about children and television reached a climax of sorts when Congress decreed earlier this year that future TV sets must include an electronic V-chip designed to help block programs identified as violent or objectionable for children. And in February, leading television executives went to the White House to announce an industrywide effort to design a system of TV content ratings.

So far, in our work to design a ratings system, we in television have turned for examples and advice to the movie industry, whose voluntary ratings system has been in place for nearly three decades. The effort is being led by the movie industry’s master tactician and diplomat, Jack Valenti. And we have accepted virtually without question the notion that TV ratings should resemble the movie ratings, which are built around age and content warnings. An R, for example, denotes a movie that, because of violent scenes or sexual content, requires a parent or adult guardian to accompany a child under the age of 17.

Before we leap to the conclusion that TV ratings should be just like movie ratings, we need to consider some differences. One difference is that for many years broadcasters have been charged by law with responsibility to act “in the public interest.” And television programs, unlike theatrical movies, are beamed directly into the home. Such differences suggest that parents and families may have different and higher, expectations for TV programs--and thus that TV ratings, too, may need to be different. A final problem with the traditional movie ratings is that they’re essentially negative, not positive: They’re warnings about what not to watch. Why not design a system of ratings that creates welcome mats for good programs that are especially worth watching?

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When he met with television executives, President Clinton hinted that he might be interested in a more positive approach. “It is not enough,” he said, “for parents to be able to tune out what they don’t want their children to watch. They want to be able to tune in good programs that their children will watch.”

I propose that we take the president at his word--by turning the new system of TV ratings into an instrument that creates welcome mats as well as warnings. Let us devise affirmative symbols of quality, starting with children’s programming.

If we don’t create such special marks of quality, parents may find the ratings confusing. If we rely only on a bland, generalized “suitable for this age group” rating, for example, we may unwittingly create a television landscape in which an episode of “Spiderman” would get essentially the same rating as an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

A system of TV ratings without such affirmative symbols of quality would have three defects: It would convey only negative, not positive information; it would blur the distinction between programs specially designed for their educational appeal and those with no educational value at all and, perhaps most important, it would create no incentives for producers and networks to compete in the arena of quality and educational appeal.

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Fortunately, the construction of a TV ratings system is in its early stages, and we still have a great opportunity. My idea is simple: We should create a distinctive icon to identify children’s programs that meet agreed-upon educational standards. This symbol would complement the new V-chip designations, which will serve only as a guide for activating the program-blocking technology mandated by law.

The icon, to be fully useful to parents, could appear in several settings: during broadcasts, to signal programs of special value; as part of listings in program guides, and in advertising and promotional materials.

At a minimum, a program qualifying for the icon should bear these hallmarks:

* It would be aimed at clearly defined educational goals and objectives.

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* It would involve subject-matter experts and educational researchers in its design and production.

* Each episode would address at least one subject area considered essential for school readiness--critical thinking and problem solving, for example; language and literacy skills, social and emotional development or facts and principles of science.

* Finally, in the case of programs for children under age 6, the program qualifying for the icon would be uninterrupted by commercials.

Simple as the concept is, actually creating an industrywide “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” won’t necessarily be easy. It adds another wrinkle to an already complicated undertaking. It poses the difficulty of getting industrywide agreement on what “special educational value” really means.

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If the purpose of ratings is to give parents and viewers useful information, this proposal advances that purpose. It would have the additional virtue of turning ratings into a positive, constructive instrument for the TV industry--in effect, encouraging competition in the arena of educational effectiveness and excellence.

In its original meaning, the word “broadcasting” had nothing to do with radio or television; it described a way that farmers sowed seed. By creating a new, more positive approach to ratings--one that not only warns against what’s dangerous, but also signals what’s valuable--we in the television industry have an opportunity to underscore that broadcasting can indeed be a way of making good things grow.


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