The Case of the Missing Rating

Richard D. Heffner, chairman of the movie rating system from 1974-1994, and Charles Champlin, former film critic and arts editor of The Times, are completing their book "The Rating Game."

Even before it is formally revealed in the next few days, the ratings system that Jack Valenti has been helping the television industry devise for itself has been heavily bombarded, its trial balloons shot down by the PTA and other organizations more concerned with young viewers' well-being than with media profits.

The system, whatever its details, is at heart a spin-doctoring plot against rising unhappiness about violent and smutty prime-time offerings. But the spin needs a lot more doctoring. Even the early complaints--notably that the ratings will apparently be age-based and not content-based--don't go near the heart of the problem: How to effectively restrict youngsters' viewing of the most violent and sexual materials on television and cable.

Valenti, of course, is chief spokesman for Hollywood's major film companies. In 1968, he persuaded the studios to join most American theater owners in adopting the present movie rating system.

The trial balloons, the calculated leaks, all imply strongly that the TV rating system will be like the movie rating system, even borrowing shamelessly from its symbols. It is an ingenious plot--innocence by association.

Whoa. The TV system surely can have no R category to restrict viewing by those under 17 without their parents in tow (let alone an NC-17 category). Yet the great majority of all the films rated by CARA (the Classification and Rating Administration) over the past two dozen years have in fact been rated R. That's where the movie action is, and no one can seriously deny that that's where the level of intensity, or candor, of much prime-time television is, too.

R is the missing rating. Without it, any claim to building on the real strengths of the movie system while merely exploiting its success is an exercise in deception and, ultimately, futility.

The enforcement of the R rating is admittedly spotty and is probably better in communities where the theater manager has a nodding acquaintance with his customers. But though public attention has always been focused on Valenti in Washington and his bosses in Hollywood, there is no question that theatrical exhibitors have been the mainstay of the movie-rating system. Without their box office barriers between our youngsters and the harshest movie content, the ratings would mean nothing. That's why the movie system--which, for all its self-imposed weaknesses, works--is simply not transferable.

In lieu of exhibitors to watch the door or the ticket window, the TV system will offer the mythical V-chip by which parents can in theory forestall their children from tuning in to inappropriate programming. All those who think that parents in any quantity will use the V-chip, raise their hands. And all those who think that children, who master computer technology that baffles their elders, will be unable to get around the V-chip, raise their hands. What, as a matter of fact, about the millions of American homes where little attention will be paid, if at all?

And how can even concerned parents, any more than the new rating system itself, cope with the mind-boggling volume of television programming? CARA rates only 750 to 800 films a year, even as television and cable unspool thousands of hours of new programming.

A further question clouding the potential of the new rating system is, of course, who will do the rating? The probable answer looks to be television itself, the foxes assuming the guardianship of the henhouse. Movie ratings are at least initially assessed by a panel of nonindustry parents who estimate not what a film's profits may be, but what the majority of other parents would likely agree is its appropriate rating.

Indications are that the TV ratings will be strictly an inside job, with no effective input from those whose interests in children's viewing should be most vitally at stake in the new system. Valenti's new rating system will be only advisory, totally deflecting the medium's own responsibilities onto parents, with no credible indication that industry players would, or could afford to, tone down their wares.

Can voluntary self-regulation ever work? Historically, we as a nation have decided that the food, drug, tobacco, utilities, banking and transportation industries, to cite a few, can't be left to their own devices because of possible peril to the common good. TV's self-rating will be just as perilous.

The movie rating system works because it is driven not by altruism but by the specter of imposed censorship. Yet since they were adopted in 1968, the ratings have led to heavier doses of violence, sex and hair-curling language because the viewer has been warned. There is every chance that the TV rating system will have the same effect.

But it is clear that many parents don't like the daily diet of television programming. And it is equally clear that the proposed new system won't do a damned thing about it. What does seem clear is that television is too important to be left to television. Somewhere between censorship and impotent voluntary self-labeling, Americans must find a better middle way.

The creation of an impartial, nonpartisan, nonindustry commission to explore the issue from the vantage of public, not private, interests might well be a start.

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