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Ratings Are Dead; Long Live Ratings

Content ratings for movies, TV shows and video games aren’t helpful. Parents need ways to apply their own values.
November 1, 2001

Since January 2000, most new television sets have come with a V-Chip that enables parents to block programs with “objectionable” content-based on a system of letter ratings-yet less than 17 percent of all parents who own equipped televisions are currently using the chip. Why? Some argue that the V-Chip has been underpublicized or that parents don’t understand the technology. Here’s another partial explanation: while many parents are concerned that popular culture doesn’t reflect their values, they also question whether any outside agency (like the TV industry organization that rates programs’ content) can make media decisions for them.

Historically, media reformers have advanced two different kinds of rationales for any sort of ratings: one educational (providing parents reliable information for policing their children’s media consumption), the other regulatory (controlling children’s access to “unwholesome” material). But in the wake of the Columbine shootings, the weight has shifted to the regulatory side of the equation, with the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and others investigating the “moral content” of popular culture, and proposals arising, for example, to make it a criminal offense to sell a violent video game to a minor. Calls for stricter enforcement don’t empower parents; they reflect a suspicion that parents won’t do what’s best for their kids. Moreover, this system of enforcement relies on a definable “point of sale”-the ID check at an R-rated movie or an electronics store sales counter-while we are approaching an age when much content may be downloaded off the Web.

Maybe we are asking ratings to do too much. Ratings are value judgments, not objective scientific standards; but whose values do they reflect? Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code, which regulated movie content for three decades, was authored in the context of a threatened boycott of American cinema by the Legion of Decency and other conservative Christian groups. Although its standards still influence our current ratings system, the code never reflected a national consensus-and in any case, a unified set of value judgments makes increasingly less sense within an ever more multicultural society. The Lion King may demean minorities, for example, but be rated as appropriate for all ages; Fundamentalist parents may object to the witchcraft in Harry Potter books. One parent objects to a single swear word; another figures kids hear that on the playground anyway. Other parents worry about animal abuse, homophobia and sexism, alcohol consumption, anti-intellectualism or blasphemy. No ratings system could accurately reflect all the different (and often contradictory) criteria. Ratings enforcement requires weighing some of these concerns over others.

What’s more, the current ratings can only condemn “bad” content, not promote “quality” content. When we send our little darlings off to see a G-rated movie, what they are getting may be bland, boring and without any educational content; all we know is that it contains no nudity, profanity or violence. In an era of expanding media choices and diversified family values, will a one-size-fits-all system based on the least offensive content serve our needs?

What if we shifted emphasis onto education, empowering parents to play a more active role in assessing media content and sharing what they learn with each other? Compare the kinds of information you get from a letter-grade rating of a new gadget to what you learn when you read consumers’ reviews of the device on Amazon.com. A variety of Web sites like www.kids-in-mind.com or www.filmvalues.com have emerged to fill this role for media-some attempting to simply describe the content so parents can judge for themselves if a video game or movie is appropriate for their kids, others providing different parents’ assessments and discussing their underlying values. None reflects the full range of perspectives, or covers the diversity of current media. What we need is a neutral third-party organization-the cultural equivalent of the League of Women Voters-to create a commons where such discussions and debates about values can occur.

In such an environment, parents could get insights about media choices from others who shared their values or be exposed to fundamentally different perspectives, as they chose. No longer a means of purely negative assessment, such a system would allow us to identify media products that actively embody our individual values. Most importantly, such a system would force parents to accept the responsibility for their own choices and talk with their children about their values rather than hiding behind an anonymous ratings system. Such assessments might also encourage the development of niche products targeting specific “values clusters” underrepresented in the current marketplace.

To be sure, these ratings couldn’t cover every media product, but parents could exercise greater caution when they moved into unknown territory and report back what they found. That kind of system might be more labor intensive for parents, yet the current ratings scheme only promises easy answers to what are complex questions. With an alternative ratings mechanism, parents would be better informed about their media options but would not be able to impose their values on other people’s families. Are you willing to make that trade?

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