X, Y or T? Rating System Confuses Harried Parents

From MTV to "Tomb Raider" and Slim Shady to Buffy, watching what kids watch--and listen to and maneuver with a joystick--now seems half the job of parenting. To help set their course, many parents steer by the ratings attached like so many road signs to movies, television shows and video games. The ratings embody an unspoken compromise. The global entertainment giants retain access to the lucrative kid-and-teen market without fear of censorship; parents get a heads up when the road suddenly dips into dangerous territory.

But a new study from the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, suggests that too often the ratings aren't giving parents the direction they need. What the institute found ought to inspire a broader debate on whether the tools used to shield children from suggestive entertainment are up to the job--and whether Washington needs to prod the big media companies to do more. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) may jump-start this debate when he convenes a hearing of his Senate Governmental Affairs Committee later this month to look at the rating systems.

As Lieberman recognizes, the institute's study offers a good place to start. For the past five years, in a process that combines altruism with masochism, the group has recruited parents to rate mountains of movies, video games and television shows across 10 distinct measures--from violence to nudity and offensive language. Then it synthesizes the results to produce a simple scale--a green, yellow or red light--that measures the appropriateness of each product for children at three age ranges: under 7, 8-12 and 13-17.

Recently the group got the inspired idea to compare the parents' ratings with the official ratings the entertainment industries apply themselves. Comparing the parents' assessments with the industry's ratings produced one point of consensus: When the industry says a product is inappropriate for young kids (say an R-rated movie), parents almost unanimously agree. But the reverse isn't true: Parents often disagree with the industry's judgments about which products are acceptable for younger kids. The differences are sharpest about younger teenagers--perhaps not surprisingly, given how heavily the entertainment industry relies on their buying power.

In the institute's assessments, just 43% of parents gave an unreserved green light for 13- to 17-year-olds to play games the video industry rated "T"--or appropriate for teens. The movie industry did better, with 60% of parents unconditionally approving for younger teens movies that carry the PG-13 rating. But the new television rating system bombed like a Geena Davis sitcom: Just 15% of parents gave a green light for younger teens to television programs that carry the TV-14 rating. Half of parents gave those programs an absolute red light.

It's no shock that parents gave the television ratings the lowest marks. Both the movie and video game ratings provide for some public input: The movie ratings are set by a 12-member board that is hired by the industry trade association but at least is composed of parents without ties to Hollywood itself. Each video game is rated by a three-person panel that has no ties to that industry.

But television programs are rated by the networks and program producers themselves through a process that rivals the Manhattan Project in its secrecy; the networks have never made clear the standards they use in setting the ratings. When the Kaiser Family Foundation studied the rating system, it found that 90% of programs that steamed the sheets did not contain the rating label meant to warn parents about sexual content.

All of these findings suggest that one fruitful line of inquiry for Lieberman's hearings is whether Washington should find ways to encourage a more uniform process for rating movies, video games and television programs--and, for that matter, music recordings. Music releases don't receive any ratings, except advisory notices for the most explicit discs applied at the whim of the record companies themselves.

That process is even more obscure than the television industry's; as the Federal Trade Commission noted in a study last year, "None of the companies has adopted written policies or guidelines defining 'explicit' content in music . . . ." At the least, Lieberman could require the television and music industries to explain how they apply ratings--and why they've refused consumers and parents a say in the process.

The problem isn't only the way ratings are applied; it's the way they are expressed. After more than 30 yearsof use, the movie industry's G through R system is familiar. But the bad Scrabble hand of new TV ratings (spanning from TV-Y to TV-MA, combined with content ratings for sex, violence and suggestive dialogue) and video game ratings (ranging from E for everyone to M for mature) leave many parents bewildered.

"The movie ratings are really ingrained into the public consciousness," says Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the Kaiser Foundation, which has extensively polled parents on these issues. "But there are significant chunks of parents who don't know what many of the [other] different rating designations mean."

Together with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Lieberman is drafting legislation to promote one obvious answer: a single uniform rating system for movies, music, television and video games. Harmonizing all of the rating systems wouldn't be easy--technically or politically. But a system built around the movie industry's age guidelines, combined with specific warnings about objectionable content, could make the rating systems much more comprehensible for parents. "The clearer the ratings are, and the more uniform they are, the more people are likely to use them," says Lieberman.

Apart from Disney, all of the leading entertainment companies now oppose a uniform rating system, considering it burdensome or impractical. Yet as companies like AOL Time Warner relentlessly diversify into every form of entertainment, it may serve their own interests to develop a common system for expressing which products are appropriate for kids. In the meantime, there's not likely to be much movement toward rating reform without public pressure--which Lieberman will begin applying with his hearing this month.

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Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at: http://www.latimes.com/brownstein.

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