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TV Ratings System

Transcript of interview of Nicholas Johnson

By Mary Hartnett, WSUI-AM/KSUI-FM, Iowa City, Iowa

[Aired during time slot for NPR's "Morning Edition" and WSUI's "Noon News" Tuesday, December 23, 1996]

Announcer: Increasing amounts of sex and violence on television have forced the television industry to come up with a ratings system of its own. Spurred on by President Clinton last February, television industry leaders announced their new ratings on Thursday [December 19, 1996]. The age-based guidelines are similar to those governing motion pictures, but some say the ratings don't give parents enough information about the violent and sexual content of programs. Former Federal Communications Commissioner and University of Iowa law professor Nick Johnson has some of the same concerns, along with some others. He talked with WSUI's Mary Hartnett.

Mary Hartnett (MH): New ratings came out on Thursday. They are TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-M. And then there're two separate sets of ratings for kids' shows. They are already being attacked. Some people are saying they fail to include any indications of sexual, violent or extreme language content -- such as are already on cable networks like HBO and Showtime. Do you think that TV executives made a mistake in proposing this kind of an age-based system? Do you think it's a good idea to do it this way or not?

Nicholas Johnson (NJ): There are so many things to be said about this effort at ratings. For starters, I think it's a diversion from what the real issues are, and we may say a word about that later.

One issue is whether a single system ought to be proposed, or whether we should have multiple systems and let the parents choose the system they think is most effective for them. You could give people a range of choices rather than picking one.

You can also talk about the politics of it all, and the conflict between Congressman Ed Markie and the President, and the role of Jack Valenti and the television executives, and so forth.

Finally, you can address the merits of this particular system.

I think as a system, as one of many systems to choose from, it can be used along with others. The problem I think is in selecting it as the only one. There are people who are concerned about other aspects of the programming that they would like to see, and for whom this is really not adequate.

Jack was the one who played a major role in creating ratings for the feature films.

MH: Jack Valenti?

NJ: I'm sorry, Jack Valenti. He was on the White House staff when I was there, and a friend even though he and I do differ on some issues. But I have a lot of admiration for him as well. I think he is, without question, the single most influential and effective lobbyist in Washington for any industry. His industry is the feature film industry.

He proposed film ratings at a time when the feature film business was under attack in the same way that television networks are now. It worked for them then, and they looked to the -- now the television industry is looking to Valenti to bail them out on this occasion. He came up with a comparable system.

Another argument that is being tossed around is the extent to which it is paternalistic, in effect, for the television executives to say, "The American people don't have the sense to figure this out for themselves, and therefore we have to really give them a no-brainer in order for it to work." Some people are offended by that. Others would say, "Well, that's a perfectly rational thing to do." It is what we did do with the movies.

MH: Congressman Markie has said that they have created a false choice between age and content, and that they should be having some kind of combined system. He gave some examples such as the PG-Violence PG rating, or sexual content in a mature rating -- which, ironically would be "SM" -- but he just thinks they've set up a false dichotomy here. Do you think that's true?

NJ: Yes, I think there are a lot of problems. But I think the things we have just now been talking about are not really the issue. We are probably contributing to diverting people's attention from the important issues by even bothering to talk about this! There are a lot of choices. The administration of any system is going to be difficult. How are you going to classify various things, and so forth.

But to get to some of what I think are the real problems, for starters there's a substantial body of evidence that suggests that instead of having a "TV-Y7" rating -- programming suitable for children under seven -- that in point of fact no television programming is suitable for a child under seven.

Children under seven have so much to learn in terms of physical movement of their bodies, their emotional development, their intellectual development, their sensory development, their ability to relate emotionally to human beings rather than mechanical and electronic devices. There is so much that they have to learn in those first few years that they simply do not have the time to spare to spend sitting in front of a television set. So that's one of the issues that I think that all of us, adults as well as children, need to consider. However, I think that the physical, physiological, emotional, intellectual, and psychological harm is probably most severe for those who are young children.

When we get down to the level of evaluating -- "this program is a good program, that program is a bad program" -- we're not focusing on the fact that whatever it is we're watching, the act in which we are engaged is the act of watching television.

When it comes to the supervision of children's watching, which is what a lot of this is focused on -- whether based on genuine concern or simply an effort to make political and ideological points -- the most important thing, based on my reading of the literature, is for parents to spend time with their children. There's almost no television which is harmful to a child if the parent is sitting there with the child, holding the child, talking to the child while the television program is on, explaining the way in which it relates to reality and how it does not, and what the child can learn from it or not learn from it, and so forth.

On the other hand, there's gobs of television programming that can be very harmful for children if there is not a parent there. The real problem is the children who are totally unsupervised.

A lot of the joking about the "V chip" in the television sets is that if parents can't keep their VCR from flashing "12:00" how on earth are they going to be able to program their television sets! If they have to ask their ten- and fourteen-year-olds to help them with the VCR, and the kids are also programming the television set, why are they going to program the television set to block out programming that the ten-year-old wants to watch if the ten-year-old is the one who is programming the set? Well, that's just sort of a light-hearted way of looking at it.

The bottom line on this it seems to me -- and as somebody who loves technology, I hate to say something that makes me sound like a right-wing Republican Luddite -- but the fact of the matter is I don't think there's a technological substitute for parenting. I think that children do need role models, mentors, mothers and fathers -- or at least a single parent who cares about the child -- for that child to have a fair shot at life in general and at television watching in particular. And I'm not sure that any technological device, no matter how sophisticated and no matter how well accepted by the public, is going to substitute for a parent providing some direction; a parent saying, "You're watching too much television," a parent saying, "It's time to do your homework," a parent saying, "Let's sit down and watch that show together, and then talk about it afterwards." I don't think there's a technological substitute for that.

So I'm not convinced that this -- that these ratings are going to provide a real solution to what I see as a major problem in our society.

MH: Part of the issue, I think, was certain programs. I think of shows like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" that are on fairly early in the evening, that have had a lot of -- and still do have, often a lot of sexual content, innuendo. Kids are still up and watching TV in the Central Time Zone at 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. Do you think that now that they have these ratings, that because of advertisers they'll have to move these shows up a bit, later into the evening? Do you think it will cause any changes like that?

NJ: Oh, I think there may be some. We had a "family viewing hour" principle when I was on the FCC and programs got shifted later into the evening.

The problem, of course, again comes down to, "Do you want to be watching television at all?"

At midnight there are still millions of young children in the television audience. As hard as that may be to believe, there it is. So I don't think you can channel in terms of time. I don't think you can simply deal with it in terms of rating the shows -- regardless of what the ratings system is.

I think you really do need a stern kind of monitoring of the quantity of mediated experience in a growing child's life.

Announcer: That was former F.C.C. Commissioner and UI law professor Nicholas Johnson. He spoke with WSUI's Mary Hartnett.

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