Defining the News: the Final Ratings Job


Although the group devising television's first ratings system essentially has settled on what the categories will be and how the coding will work, still to be resolved at its final meeting Wednesday is whether such syndicated programs as "Inside Edition" and "Entertainment Tonight" will qualify for exemption as news programs.

The industry committee has long said that news and sports programs will not be subject to the ratings, which are intended to help parents determine in advance whether certain entertainment shows might be inappropriate for their children. But the committee has not yet voted on the precise definition of what constitutes a news program.

Committee members say that traditional newscasts will certainly be exempt from the ratings and that they also expect to exclude network newsmagazines like CBS' "60 Minutes." The debate is over whether to make a distinction between those newsmagazines and syndicated fare, with some committee members saying they see political problems if they do not keep the two separate.

"The majority of the committee wants to keep tabloid shows separate from network newsmagazines, but we disagree with that," said Arthur Sando, vice president of King World Productions, which distributes "Inside Edition" and "American Journal."

The definition of news was said to be the last major problem still to be resolved by the committee, which plans to unveil the already controversial ratings plan at a news conference in Washington on Thursday. Committee sources said Monday that the group plans to change the name of two ratings categories designating programs made for children but, despite criticism from children's TV advocates and others last week, doesn't intend to make major changes in the descriptive information that accompanies its six categories.

The children's programming categories are expected to be renamed TV-Y and TV-Y7 (from TV-K and TV-K7 in an earlier draft), with the former designating programs suitable for all youngsters and the latter suggesting that only children over the age of 7 watch. Other programming will be coded either TV-G (for general audience), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-PG14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14) or TV-M (for adults).

King World and Paramount Domestic Television, which distributes "Hard Copy" and "Entertainment Tonight," have been lobbying the ratings committee to define news in a way that will make their shows exempt.

"Our shows are done day-and-date [of broadcast] and, while we do a lot of celebrity stories, we do a lot of investigative pieces too," Andy Friendly, executive vice president at King World, said in an interview. " 'Inside Edition' just won a National Press Club Award for a story on faulty minivans, for example. We spend money on investigative reporting, and we consider our show a serious newsmagazine, like the ones that are on broadcast television."

Some people at the tabloid shows said they believe the ratings committee is showing favoritism toward broadcast network news divisions. But King World and Paramount both have representatives on the committee, and one member said, "This isn't a case of broadcasters versus syndicators. Other syndicators agree that the public does not equate 'Hard Copy' with '60 Minutes.' "

Another committee member acknowledged that potential political fallout is a factor in the decision.

"After the storm of criticism we've taken [from children's TV advocates and Congress] over the proposed rating system," the committee member said, "can you imagine the outcry if we didn't rate 'Hard Copy'? "

Talk shows will be rated, committee sources said. But they said there will be an opportunity for a talk program to claim an occasional news exemption--if, for example, one of them did an interview with President Clinton.

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