Whom Do You Trust? – TV Ratings (Column by M.A. Mohanraj)

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I just appeared on a TV show (Seattle’s “Town Meeting”) discussing
this issue with conservative Mike Medved and radio personality Tom Leykis.
(I wish to state for the record that while Tom may hold a position I agree
with, the man was totally incoherent on the show. Contradicted himself
multiple times, took up totally indefensible positions that really hurt
his argument, etc. and so on. Very frustrating). This may seem a bit far
afield for me — after all, I haven’t watched TV in months, and haven’t
missed it. However, the current controversy surrounding TV ratings is
directly related to the huge debates about smut on the internet, and as
such, I have a strong interest. Hopefully, you do too.

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

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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