TV Ratings and the V-chip (2023)

Amy I. Nathanson, PhD
Lecturer, University of California at Santa Barbara

Joanne Cantor, PhD
Professor, Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Much research suggests that television viewing is related to a host of negative outcomesin children. Studies have found that television viewing is associated with aggression, a"desensitization" to violence, and increased fear (Wilson et al., 1997). Given that children's exposure to television is inevitable,parents may wonder what they can do to protect their children from experiencing these and othernegative effects. The purpose of this paper is to discuss one option for controlling children'stelevision viewing: the use of television ratings. More specifically, this paper will brieflydescribe the history and development of television ratings, discuss three of the major problemsassociated with television ratings, and then finally point out some of the other methods that areavailable to help parents cope with the presence of television in their children's lives.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 declared that, within two years of its passage,televisions be manufactured with a V-chip. The V-chip will permit parents to block televisionprograms that they feel are objectionable or problematic by working in conjunction with atelevision rating system. That is, television programs (except news and sports) would receiveratings, and then parents could use these ratings to decide which programs they wanted to blockout. It is clear, then, that the effectiveness of the V-chip depends in large part on the utility of atelevision rating system.

The first system that was unveiled was developed by the entertainment industry. Thissystem, called the "TV Parental Guidelines," went into effect in January of 1997 and was quitefamiliar. The reason for its immediate familiarity was that the system was based on the MotionPicture Association of America's (MPAA) rating system for movies. The MPAA ratings includethe following four ratings: G, PG, PG-13, and R. Similarly, the original TV Parental Guidelinesincluded the following four ratings: TV-G (general audience), TV-PG (parental guidancesuggested), TV-14 (parents strongly cautioned), and TV-MA (mature audiences only). Onedifference between the two systems is that the TV Parental Guidelines included a separate, two-level rating system for children's programs: TV-Y (all children) and TV-Y7 (directed to olderchildren).

With the exceptions of the children's rating system, the addition of "TV" before each ofthe ratings, and a few minor changes in the ratings themselves, the TV Parental Guidelines werevirtually identical to the movie ratings. Both the MPAA ratings and the TV Parental Guidelinesare "age-based" systems in that they generally recommend or discourage viewing based on howold viewers are. In other words, the rating TV-14 suggests that a program should not be viewedby children who are under the age of 14, while the rating TV-G suggests that a program issuitable for viewers of any age. Neither rating system provides any indication of what kind ofmaterial or content is in a given movie or television program or why it might be inappropriate forviewers of a certain age.

Although the intention to create a television rating system was certainly commendable,there were many problems with the system that was developed. The first major problem withthe system was that it was not what parents wanted. Numerous national surveys were conductedto assess parents' preferences regarding the television rating system. And, in the majority of thesurveys that were conducted, overwhelming support for a content-based rating system as opposedto an age-based system (such as the TV Parental Guidelines) was found.

One such study polled a random national sample of nearly 700 local-unit members of theNational Parent Teacher Association It is important to note that this survey was conducted before the original TV Parental Guidelines were unveiled, and soparents were asked to report their preferences before having had experienced any one particulartelevision rating system. In this study, members of the National PTA received abrief survey in the mail assessing, among other things, their attitudes and preferences regarding atelevision rating system. For example, the parents were asked if they would prefer atelevision rating system that indicated what kind of content was in a program or if they wouldprefer a system that indicated the age of the child that the program is appropriate for. Theirfindings revealed that 80% of parents said they would prefer a content-based system over an age-based system, while only 20% said they preferred an age-based system over a content-basedsystem.

Using two other questions, the authors again found that parents overwhelmingly wanted acontent-based system. For example, parents were also asked to choose whether they wouldprefer a television rating system that provided content information or one that provided anevaluation of the program. And, in a third question, parents were asked whether they wouldprefer a system that provided separate ratings for television content or a system that gave onesummary rating. In response, they found that 82% preferred a content-based system over anevaluative-system, and 80% preferred a content-based system over a system that provided onesummary rating.

These findings clearly revealed that parents wanted a system that would alert them topotentially problematic content and not one that made evaluations or recommendations for them. This makes sense, for parents certainly know their children the best of anyone, and they may bedifferentially concerned with different kind of television content depending on the particularchild in question For example, a parent may feel that he or she has anexceptionally mature 10-year old who could easily cope with hearing bad language or seeingsexual situations on television. However, this parent may be very concerned about the child'sreaction to violent television and may want to shield the youngster from programs with violentcontent. This parent, then, would not want to rely on the industry's age-based recommendationsand would probably prefer to know what kind of material is in a certain program and then decidewhether it was appropriate for his or her child. Certainly, these parents would not find the age-based TV Parental Guidelines very helpful in monitoring their children's viewing.

The second major problem with the TV Parental Guidelines was that they were not likelyto effectively warn parents about what kind of objectionable content (e.g., violence, sex, coarselanguage) television programs with certain ratings would contain. In other words, the TVParental Guidelines were not likely to be very informative because the specific ratings wouldprobably not be indicative of any particular kind of television material. These speculations arebased on the fact that the rating system that the TV Parental Guidelines were based on--theMPAA rating system--has been shown to be ineffective in clearly communicating what kind ofcontent coincides with particular movie ratings.

For example, in two consecutive years, it was found that the various MPAA ratings bearlittle relationship with various types of content ; . These data came from content analyses conducted for the first and secondyears of the National Television Violence Study, a three-year project funded by the NationalCable Television Association. The content analyses contained information about whether themovies collected as part of the sample contained an MPAA rating and/or a content rating, such asthose provided on the premium cable channels, HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax. If a particularmovie contained both kinds of ratings, the data sets indicated which particular MPAA andcontent ratings it had received. This allowed us to examine the relationship between MPAAratings and a movie's content, as determined by the premium cable channels.

In both years, no clear pattern between the MPAA ratings and the content codes wasfound. This was particularly true in the case of PG-rated movies (see Figure 1). For example, inthe analysis of the second-year data, we found that 22% of the movies contained a combinationof language and violence. In addition, another 22% contained a combination of language andsex. Another 18% contained violence only, and another 15% contained language only. Whatthis reveals is that virtually any kind of content, or combination of content, is likely to appear ina PG-rated movie.

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Figure 1. Distribution of Language, Sex, and Violence Codes in PG-Rated Movies

The fact that the MPAA ratings do not clearly communicate what kind of content willappear in a certain movie is problematic for parents who want to shield their children fromspecific types of content. And clearly, as the numerous national surveys have shown, mostparents do want to know what type of content is contained in a given program. Since the TVParental Guidelines are based on the MPAA rating system, we should only expect the televisionratings to be just as uninformative as the movie ratings.

In fact, there is some recent evidence that the TV Parental Guidelines provide littleinformation about what kind of content is contained in television programs. In an analysis of thethird year of content analysis data collected for the National Television Violence Study, Cantorand Nathanson (1998) were able to provide the first comparison of the TV Parental Guidelinesand television program content. In this analysis, the authors compared the presence of thevarious TV Parental Guidelines with the presence of violence in the programs. The presence ofviolence was determined by coders who had watched all of the programs analyzed in the data andused specific criteria to identify the presence of violence. Cantor and Nathanson found that, forprogramming directed at general audiences, the TV Parental Guidelines provided no indication ofthe presence of violence. That is, programs rated TV-PG were equally likely to contain violenceas programs rated TV-14. Another way of saying this is that a parent who wants to shield his orher child from televised violence is no better off selecting programs rated TV-PG than selectingprograms rated TV-14. Hence, the analyses of the movies seemed to accurately predict theuninformativeness of the TV Parental Guidelines regarding their ability to communicate the kindof content that is associated with various ratings.

The third major problem with the TV Parental Guidelines was that it was likely to attractchildren to the very content that parents want to shield them from. In other words, it is likely thata child who sees a program that is rated TV-14 will be more interested in seeing the program--simply because of its restrictive rating--than a program that is rated TV-G. These speculationsare based on two years of research conducted for the National Television Violence Study ; Cantor et al., 1997). Although the procedures and methods differedsomewhat across the two years, the studies were quite similar and produced very similar results. For simplicity's sake, the more recent research will be presented.

Cantor et al. (1997) conducted an experiment with children in Milwaukee who ranged inage from 5 to 15. All of the children in the experiment received booklets that were designed toresemble a TV Guide. More specifically, the booklets contained the titles of fictional movies anddescriptions of their major story lines. All of the children read the same titles and descriptions; however, one group of children was told that one of the movies they read about was rated G,another group of children was told that the same movie was rated PG, another group was told itwas rated PG-13, another group was told it was rated R, and finally, thefifth group did not receive any information about the program's rating.

The children were asked to read the titles and descriptions (the younger children, whomay have had difficulty reading, had adult research assistants read the titles and descriptions tothem) and then rate how much they wanted to see each movie on a scale from 1, meaning theywould "hate to see it" to 5, meaning they would "love to see it." The children were told that theseratings would constitute "votes," and that they would get to see the movie that received the mostvotes.

For the movie associated with the various MPAA ratings, we found a strong effect of theratings on children's interest in the movie. We found that older children (ages 10-15) were mostinterested in the movie when they thought it was rated either PG-13 or R. However, interest waslowest when older children believed the movie was rated G (see Figure 2). In addition, we foundthat aggressive younger children and younger children who were heavy viewers of televisionwere also most interested in the movie when it was associated with a more restrictive movierating. Clearly, then, the age-based MPAA ratings made restricted movies more interesting tochildren, while movies deemed appropriate for children (e.g., movies rated G) became lessinteresting.

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Figure 2. Effect of MPAA Ratings on Older Children's Interest in a Movie

To understand whether any kind of rating system would have the same effect on children ,we also compared the effect of a content-based rating system on children's interest in movies. One of the other movies described in the children's booklets was randomly associated with aviolence designation in a manner consistent with how the various premium channels displayratings. That is, all of the children read the same title and movie description; however, onegroup of children was led to believe that the program was rated "V: Violence," another groupbelieved it was rated "MV: Mild Violence," another group believed it was rated "GV: GraphicViolence," and a fourth group believed the movie had no rating.

In contrast to the effects observed with the MPAA ratings, we found that the contentindicators had no effect on children's interest in viewing the movie. In fact, younger childrentended to shy away from the movie when they believed it contained various levels of violence. Hence, it does not appear that every rating system will necessarily attract children to restricted orobjectionable content. However, it does seem that the age-based MPAA ratings entice childrento the content parents want to protect them from. By extension, we should expect that the TVParental Guidelines, because they are so similar to the MPAA ratings, will also attract children torestricted content.

One possible explanation for why these different effects were observed for the two ratingsystems is that the age-based MPAA system increases children's curiosity in a movie by failingto indicate what is objectionable about the content and simply forbidding children of a certainage from seeing it. The content-based system, on the other hand, does not make anyrecommendations about who should or should not see the movie; it simply describes itscontents. Children may be less allured by simple content information, but may wish to defyrestrictions placed on them by seeking out the content that is forbidden and seeing for themselveswhy it is considered objectionable.

Hence, the original TV Parental Guidelines were problematic for three primary reasons:they did not reflect the kind of television rating system that parents wanted, they were not likelyto (and, in the case of violent content, they did not) clearly communicate the kind of content thatprograms contain, and they were likely to attract children to problematic content rather than repelthem. Given these problems, it is likely that parents are still wondering what it is that they cando to protect their children from television they consider to be harmful.

Fortunately, however, the TV Parental Guidelines were revised. Because of the intensecriticism that the system received, the industry (with the exception of NBC) agreed to modify theexisting system to include ratings that would indicate what kind of content appears in programs. Thus, the letters V, S, L, and D were added to indicate the presence of violence, sex, language,and suggestive dialogue, respectively. The letters "FV" (indicating "fantasy violence") were added to the children's ratings to indicate the presence of "more intense" violence in children's programs. The revised TV Parental Guidelines went into effect in October of 1997.

However, the revisions to the system did not eliminate the age-based component. Instead,content indicators were simply added to the age-based ratings to communicate why a certainprogram received the rating that it did. Thus, programs now receive ratings such as TV-PG-L,or TV-14-V, and TV-MA-S. And, depending on what age-based rating a program receives, aparent can determine the level of violence, sex, and language that it contains. For example, aprogram rated TV-PG-V indicates that the program has "moderate violence," a program ratedTV-14-V indicates that the program has "intense violence," and a program rated TV-MA-V suggests that the program has "graphic violence."

Unfortunately, this system is rather confusing. Moreover, there is very little informationreadily available that describes what the content letters mean and how they work in conjunctionwith age-based ratings. For example, one little known component of the revised TV ParentalGuidelines is that programs that have different kinds of contents appearing at different levels ofintensity will not receive a rating that reflects the diversity of its content. That is, if a programhas strong coarse language (and therefore deserves to be rated TV-14-L) and moderate violence(and therefore deserves a rating of TV-PG-V), only the TV-14-L rating will be displayed. Hence,a parent who wants to shield his or her child from programs with any kind of violence, regardlessof how frequently or intensely it occurs, will find the revised TV Parental Guidelines misleading. Therefore, although the revised ratings are certainly a step in the right direction, they are stillplagued by many problems.

Fortunately, parents need not rely on the television ratings to block out certain programs. Thanks to new technologies, parents will be able to purchase set-top boxes and some new TV sets that willpermit them to block unrated programs or to block by channel and/or by thetime a program is aired (Cantor, 1998). Thus, even with a problematic rating system, parents mayexert some control over what enters their homes.

Theoretically speaking, then, the television ratings provide one way for parents toprotect their children from witnessing what parents judge to be potentially harmful television. In practice, however, it seems that effectively using the currently-existing television ratingsystem is a considerable challenge. Hopefully, with the continued development of technology,more methods will emerge that will help parents gain the control that they desire over the television content that enters their homes.

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Cantor, J. (1998). "Mommy, I'm scared": How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Cantor, J., & Harrison, K. (1996). Ratings and advisories for television programming. In National Television Violence Study, Volume 1 (pp. 361-410). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cantor, J., & Nathanson, A. (1998). Ratings and advisories for televisionprogramming. In Center for Communication and Social Policy (Ed.), National TelevisionViolence Study, Vol. 3 (pp. 285-321). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cantor, J., Harrison, K., & Nathanson, A. (1997). Ratings and advisories for televisionprogramming. In Center for Communication and Social Policy (Ed.), National TelevisionViolence Study, Volume 2 (pp. 267-322). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cantor, J., Stutman, S., & Duran, V. (1996, November). What parents want in atelevision rating system: Results from a national survey. Report released by the National PTA,the Institute for Mental Health Initiatives, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Available at

Wilson, B.J., Kunkel, D., Linz, D., Potter, J., Donnerstein, E., Smith, S.L., Blumenthal,E., & Berry, M. (1997). Violence in television programming overall. In Center forCommunication and Social Policy (Ed.), National Television Violence Study, Volume 2 (pp. 3-204). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Copyright © 1998 Amy I. Nathanson and Joanne Cantor.

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