Return to Nicholas Johnson Home Page

TV Program Ratings

Interview with Nicholas Johnson by Gayane Torossian

Aired WSUI-AM, Iowa City, Iowa, February 26 and 27, 1997

Gayane Torossian: Parents who have concerns about the current TV rating system may soon have a toll-free number to call the Federal Communications Commission. Democratic Congressman Joseph Kennedy from Massachusetts is planning to introduce a bill that would establish an 800 telephone number to track parents' concerns. The TV networks have been labeling their shows with age-based labels since January first. Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings from South Carolina says the TV industry should either label the shows for violence or move them to a "safe harbor" time when children are less likely to watch. University of Iowa law professor Nicholas Johnson says there is no clear-cut definition of appropriate TV content.

[The full interview follows:]

Nicholas Johnson: Is the content really necessary to the story line? There's a degree of violence in the movie "Fargo," for example, which I think some people, at least, would think was perfectly appropriate and necessary to the story line and which others would find offensive.

There are some agreements within the academic community in terms of measuring violence. Dr. George Gerbner, from the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, has been involved in much of this research. It is possible to come up with some definitions, but it certainly is not possible to come up with unanimity.

GT: I understand that educators will have to take part in the decision-making process. They should decide what is appropriate and what is not. You mentioned "Fargo." I was going to rent it yesterday but then I remembered, as you said, there is a scene which I wouldn't like my children to see. I understand educators will have their say in this process as well, or that's not certain for now. About this 800 number, do you think there will be a way to process all the calls? Maybe only concerned parents will call; satisfied parents won't call.

NJ: In general, I think when you provide an opportunity for people to participate in a hearing, or register their opinions, there does tend to be a disproportionate number of people who care about it and who object who are going to speak out, rather than people who are satisfied. That's only natural.

The question, of course, is what's going to happen with all this content that comes in by way of the 800 number. In the same way that today with e-mail to elected officials, or in the old days postal mail to elected officials, some people questioned how much real impact it was having. You got a form letter back. Today you often get nothing at all back. So that would be the real question. What impact is this actually going to have?

GT: What are the chances that the Hollings bill will pass?

NJ: The industry, obviously, is going to have a position and they've expressed it. Their position is that they want to go with the system that Jack Valenti [President, Motion Picture Association of America] came up with and, at a minimum, want to give it what they call a fair chance. They want to try it and see how it works, how much complaint there is, or proposals for modification, rather than change it so quickly after it has come into use. Most legislation takes a long time to wend its way through the process, anyhow, so it may very well be that by the time any of this stands a real chance of being enacted we will have more of a record.

GT: Is there anything you would like to add?

NJ: It seems to me that, in large measure, talking about ratings systems of any kind misses a number of points.

One point is that there should be some meaningful limit on how much time children spend watching television. There are those who argue that children under the age of eight should not be watching any television at all. They just have more important things to be doing with their time, like learning to walk and talk, and learning to interact with humans rather than machines. That's one issue: whether you want children watching television at all, or how much of it you want them to be watching, whether or not the programs are rated.

As Dr. George Gerbner, among others, has pointed out, regardless of what the child is watching the activity in which they are engaged is the activity of "watching television." The question is whether you want them doing that at all. How many hours per week [do you want them to spend] in that "nonactivity," as it really is, since it involves sitting motionless in a brain-altered state while they're taking this input.

The second issue is what time the materials are put on the air. The problem is that even at midnight there a couple of million kids under the age of twelve watching television. It is very difficult to control with time-of-day limits how much kids are watching.

The third issue is that with all the cable channels and video tapes that are available it's very difficult to control what a child is going to be exposed to. With a large quantity of off-the-cable television, or videotaped television, it's very difficult to control the totality of what the child is watching.

Finally, the question is who's going to do anything about these warning notices if the child is watching unattended? Its not going to make much difference what's in the upper left hand corner of the screen. If the child wants to watch it he or she is going to watch it. Or perhaps the parent doesn't catch it [the warning notice/rating].

One of the best solutions is for the parent to watch with the child. There is very little that is going to be harmful to a child if they are watching with the parent, talking about it as it's going on, getting some feedback, getting some reassurance from the parent, being told the difference between reality and fantasy, and so forth.

Similarly, there is very little television which is not going to cause harm if it's being watched by the child alone without any parental guidance or participation.

Those are all issues which I think are of much greater consequence than which rating system we use.

Return to Nicholas Johnson Home Page