Under intense pressure from Congress, television broadcasters agreed in principle Wednesday to improve upon their current ratings system to provide parents with more information about the content of each program.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who convened the meeting between members of Congress and representatives of the television networks, hailed the preliminary agreement as a significant breakthrough in the current ratings stalemate. He characterized it as “a commitment to move toward providing more information for parents” whose children watch television.
But McCain emphasized that the matter is not yet resolved. He said that the broadcasters pledged to discuss a possible compromise in consultation with parents’ groups and to return to Washington in two weeks. He said that he hopes the matter can be resolved at that time.
The network executives did not speak publicly after the meeting. Privately, however, they described the closed-door meeting only as “constructive"--something short of a breakthrough.
Notably absent from the meeting was Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, principal proponent of the existing ratings system. When reached for comment, he said: “I have always said we would be flexible but would not make any radical changes unless the system broke down.”
At issue in the controversy is a television ratings system that went into practice at the beginning of this year. Programs are given one of four designations: TV-G (for all ages), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (may be inappropriate for children under 14) and TV-MA (for adults).
Parents’ groups have complained that the system does not provide them with enough information about the exact content of the programs.
As an alternative, some industry officials have proposed adding the letters S (for sex), V (violence) and L (foul language) to the ratings to give parents some idea of what type of material to expect. Although this idea is popular with some broadcasters, NBC has opposed it and CBS remains uncommitted.
McCain said that the S,V,L ratings system was neither embraced nor rejected in his meeting with representatives of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner. But he indicated that it would be acceptable to Congress if it passes muster with parents’ groups.
Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), a strong industry defender who attended the meeting along with McCain, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), said the network representatives agreed that “the rating system can be improved” and said that they “will provide more information to parents.”
Tauzin added that, while the networks also agreed to take the views of parents’ groups into account, these groups will not be given “veto power” over any possible compromise.
“The commitment we had today would not shut off any option,” Tauzin explained.
The network representatives were called to Capitol Hill at a crucial juncture in the dispute over television ratings. The Senate is considering two bills that would legislate an improved ratings system and the Federal Communications Commission has scheduled a June 20 hearing on the issue.
McCain said he promised the networks the Senate would not vote on a pending measure by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) before their representatives return to Capitol Hill in two weeks.
Hollings’ bill would force the industry either to provide content-based ratings or to restrict violent programming to hours when children are not likely to be watching. Markey said that the Hollings bill is so objectionable to the networks that it “has sharply focused the attention of the industry” and spurred an effort to compromise.
At the same time, McCain said he pledged that Congress would not act if the networks and the parents’ groups agree on a ratings system. “We must uphold our end of the bargain to give them time to see that the system works,” he said.
But if no compromise is reached, Markey said, members of Congress would move toward the “irresistible political solution” of voting on both the Hollings bill and a separate measure sponsored by Coats.
Coats’ bill would prohibit the FCC from renewing TV stations’ licenses unless they provide detailed information about a program’s sexual and violent content. It does not recommend a particular ratings system.
The network executives said they were encouraged by assurances that members of Congress would not permit parents’ groups to dictate an outcome.
“We agreed to meet with the groups to see if there’s a deal to be made,” said one executive who attended the meeting, “but we didn’t agree to give the groups veto power. We expressed to Sen. McCain our concerns that some of the advocacy groups appear to be upping the ante on what would be acceptable.”