A little setup. As it stands, the TV industry has agreed (under threat of legislative action by Congress) to voluntarily place ratings on their shows. (NBC is the lone holdout among the big networks -- send them a nice e-mail showing your support). The ratings include such tags as V for violence, L for graphic language, D for suggestive dialogue, etc. There are also age ratings, similar to those in the movies, but more specific. So a show like Melrose Place might be rated R-VLDN, for example. (Tom tried to make the argument that parents wouldn't be able to keep track of what rating meant what, but I think that's a specious argument -- there aren't that many letters, and I think most parents can figure out that if there are at least three letters attached to the show's rating, it's probably meant for an adult audience).
This doesn't sound so bad. We've had sort of similar ratings for movies for a while, and they haven't hurt anything, right? Well, that's a questionable statement by itself -- the industry definitely does tailor movies to the ratings they're looking for that season, the ratings they think will sell. Some would argue that that's just the market at work -- people go see the movies they want to see, and the industry makes movies accordingly. But the rating influences whether people go to see something, so you have a small vicious circle going. E.g., great movie comes out with 'G' rating (or 'X'), everyone knows that those movies are boring (or crude), so nobody goes to see the actually great movie, so the money doesn't come in, so the industry thinks 'hey, people don't want to see G or X movies -- we shouldn't make them'. So they don't make those great G or X movies. The existence of the rating system creates a very subtle, indirect censorship on what movies are produced. That effect will transfer directly to television, and will be almost impossible to track statistically.
That's not my primary argument against ratings, though. My primary argument comes directly out of what's happened on-line with the idea of policing the internet for smut through babysitter programs. Again, I need to give some background first.
There are basically three types of babysitter programs. One kind works by having a team of people create a list of acceptable sites. This is fairly clear, and if they publish their list, then parents know what they're getting. The disadvantage to this method is that you need a huge team of people working to update the list to keep it even vaguely current, and realistically, it's going to be giving you very limited access to the net. If that's all right with you, fine.
A second kind works by creating an excluded site. They say, 'we know that Playboy is bad, that Penthouse is bad, that Hustler is really bad, so we'll block these sites'. Anything they don't exclude, you're welcome to visit. This gives you access to a much larger portion of the net, but it has two problems. The first is the same problem the previous solution had -- they have to somehow keep up with the ever-increasing net. That's a practical limit. The second problem is far more problematic, though -- in addition to blocking sites with explicit pornography, they can block anything else they feel like blocking. And since they keep their lists secret, the parents who use these programs have no idea what is being blocked from their computers. As an example, Cybersitter currently blocks the National Organization for Women, gay and lesbian organizations, Spectacle magazine, and Peacefire (a teen-run freedom of speech website).
The third kind works by scanning for keywords through the entire net and blocking anything with those keywords. They avoid the practical limit in the second case above, but they have the same ability to choose whatever keywords they want. Some browsers keyword for sex, violence, drugs, etc. -- but others also keyword for words like feminist, pregnancy, gay rights, safe sex, etc. As you can see, it's very easy for a ratings system to be twisted to a political agenda.
You see my analogy, I'm sure. I'm not a parent, but if I were, I wouldn't trust Cybersitter, CyberPatrol, etc. to not be pushing a specific political agenda. In the same way, the TV ratings will be set by a panel of industry professionals and a few people from outside the industry (some of whom are parents). I don't trust that panel. I don't believe that they won't have a political agenda -- and if I had a TV with a V-chip tuned to only accept programs with a G or PG rating, and with no V, D, L, etc., I would never even see the programs that were not allowed on my TV -- which means that I would have no way of judging whether the panel was accurately representing my assessment of the character of a show. (As an example, Schindler's List would be blocked for V, yet it is a profoundly anti-violent movie. And what happens to war documentaries, to museum shows which show nude models or statues, to Hamlet....or even Romeo and Juliet?) Who watches the watchmen? As a thinking, responsible adult, whom do you trust to do your thinking for you? And do you believe that the people you trust will be on the panel in Hollywood -- do you agree with the politics of the babysitter program owners?
I'm not giving you an answer -- I'm not sure I have one. Clearly, it would be great if parents could be there with their children to watch the TV shows and to surf the internet. But in a dual-income family, with both parents out of the home, that may be very difficult, and as a non-parent, I don't feel it's my place to tell parents that that's what they should be doing. A friend of mine recently suggested that the answer might be to provide ratings from a variety of organizations -- let NOW do their ratings of the shows, let the Christian Coalition do theirs, etc. and so on, and the parents can choose which rating system they buy into. At least they'd know the politics of the group they picked, and the parents who didn't want to buy into this wouldn't have to choose ratings at all. (An interesting net analogy to this is the case of alt.sex.stories. A group of heterosexuals got up and shouted that they didn't want homosexual stories on the group -- the group responded by telling them to create their own subgroup, if they wanted to censor themselves. Alt.sex.stories.heterosexual was created -- I think they occasionally get a post or two.) I think the industry would support such partisan ratings, and I'm sure the organizations would be happy to volunteer individuals to do their ratings. It's a thought, anyway.
My main point with this article isn't to offer you that alternative, though. My aim is rather to demonstrate the subtle problems in the process, and the ways in which a good-intentioned system can be very easily perverted to the hidden agendas of a few individuals or of a political organization. If this concerns you, please -- send NBC a letter of support, or write a note or two to your congressman or the other stations. And keep an eye out for other attempts at censorship.
- Mary Anne Mohanraj
July 30, 1997
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