Congress orders FCC to review its 'inaccurate' TV content rating system for first time

A child watches television.
A child watches television. | (Photo: Parents Television Council)

Congress is requiring the Federal Communications Commission to launch a review of its TV content ratings system, which advocates argue has long misguided families and children.

In passing an omnibus spending bill earlier this month, federal lawmakers included language ordering the FCC to review its 22-year-old TV content rating system to determine whether or not the system is truly accurate.

The Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that pressures for a safe media environment for families, has been vocal in the past several years in calling for a reform of the TV content rating system. Since 2014, it has pressured for a review of the system.

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“This is something we have been calling for for years,” PTC President Tim Winter told The Christian Post on Monday.

The PTC has opposed the fact that the FCC content rating system essentially allows networks to decide for themselves what to rate a show in terms of its content rating.

Because advertisers are less likely to advertise on shows with mature content, networks are motivated to label shows as family-friendly in order to generate more ad revenue, according to PTC.

Last September, PTC released a study showing that about 80 percent TV comedy shows rated as family-friendly expose children to sexual dialogue. Last March, PTC found that all gun violence on primetime broadcast television was rated as appropriate for children as young as 14. In some cases, gun violence was rated as appropriate for children younger than 14.

An April 2016 PTC study found that the amount and intensity of adult content on TV-PG shows have been increasing and more children were being led to watching adult content. PTC has also warned that the governing body of the rating system — the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board — is "comprised of the very same executives that rate content wrong to begin with."

According to the recently-passed legislation, the FCC is directed to report to the House and Senate appropriations committees “on the extent to which the rating system matches the video content that is being shown and the ability of the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board to address public concerns.”

The act of Congress came after PTC sent a letter earlier this month to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calling for a review of a 1998 report and order establishing the V-chip, TV content rating system, and the Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board.

PTC called for the review in light of the Education Department’s Safe Schools Commission report from December 2018 warning that content ratings were one issue to explore to help prevent future violence.

“We have worked really hard in the last 12 months following the tragic school shooting in Florida that led to a meeting at the White House with the president and members of the entertainment community who market and sell violent media,” Winter said.

In that meeting with Trump in March 2018, Winter said that PTC Program Director Melissa Henson sat next to the president in the cabinet room and talked about how hard it is as a parent when so much falsely rated media content is targeted at children. She also refuted arguments made by media industry lobbyists during the meeting.

In the months since the meeting, PTC has gained the support of lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle in their call for a review. Winter said there is a “uniform agreement” about the state of the content rating system among Democrats and Republicans.

Although the system has been in place for nearly a quarter-century, the TV content rating system has never once had an oversight hearing.

“Hollywood has made sure of that,” Winter argued. “They don’t want oversight hearings, they don’t want to have any accountability. They don’t want any questioning in the accuracy of their system because it will be exposed for what it is.”

“We have demonstrated for 20 years that the system is inaccurate, inconsistent, not at all transparent and it is wholly unaccountable for those whom it was created: parents,” Winter continued. “All it has done in the last two decades is to give cover to Hollywood to promote and market graphic content. They say, ‘Well, we labeled it.’ What they routinely do is label it for younger audiences than what it should be.”

PTC expects the television industry to staunchly defend the current rating system.

“We know that the industry is going to do everything it humanly can do to kill this,” Winter explained. “They are going to say, ‘there is no problem.’ They are going to say, ‘the tools work.’ They are going to say, ‘it’s parents’ fault.’ They are going to say that ‘it is much ado about nothing’ and that ‘everything is fine and there is nothing to see here’ because they don’t get any complaints. The reality is parents don’t know who to complain to and parents don’t know where to turn.’

A spokesperson for the Internet & Television Association — the trade association for the U.S. broadband and pay television industries — told Variety that representatives for the association will talk with the FCC “about the success of the TV rating system and how it provides parents with useful information to make informed choices about their family viewing choices.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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