FCC Seeks Comment on TV Ratings System

The FCC is seeking comment on the TV ratings system, as Congress told it it had to do in the omnibus appropriations legislation that was enacted Feb. 15 and which averted a second government shutdown.

In a public notice Tuesday (Feb. 26), the FCC's Media Bureau "seeks comment on the accuracy of the television content rating system, known as the TV Parental Guidelines, and the ability of the governing body for TV ratings, the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board, to oversee the ratings system and address public concerns."

"[We] have taken [this] legislative mandate seriously and as I understand our staff is currently looking at how to best provide Congress with the information requested," FCC chair Ajit Pai told B&C before the public notice was released. 

The FCC has 90 days from that Feb. 15 date to report back to Congress on the system.

The Parents Television Counsel had long called on the FCC to undertake that review and Congress included a provision to that effect in the omnibus 2019 Appropriations Bill that passed last week, averting another government shutdown and launching the review.

"The FCC is directed to report to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate within 90 days of enactment of this Act 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," a summary of the voluminous bill's contents points out.

Among the questions the FCC wants answered on the ratings system generally are (comments are due March 12 and replies March 19): "Are programs with violent, sexual, or other content that may be inappropriate for children being rated accurately? Are both the age and content-based ratings being correctly applied? Are the ratings being applied consistently, or is programming with similar content being rated differently? Is there a type of program content (e.g., violence or sexual content) that is particularly subject to being rated inaccurately or inconsistently?"

Among the questions it wants answered about the monitoring board are: 

"Has the Board taken steps to respond to concerns raised about the accuracy of ratings being applied to television programming or any other issue raised by the public? Has the Board complied with the commitments it made regarding the TV Parental Guidelines? Are the ratings being applied to the video programming the Industry committed to rating? What steps has the Board taken to improve the accuracy of the ratings? Has the Board undertaken any enforcement efforts to ensure that the Industry is applying the ratings and doing so accurately?" Does the Board respond to comments submitted via [its] website and, if so, in what way? What other steps, if any, should the Board take to improve its responsiveness to public concerns about the TV ratings?"

PTC's concerns are that there are virtually no shows rated as suitable for the whole family in prime time, that shows are being mis-rated and that networks rating their own shows has always been problematic and an inherent conflict of interest."

“We are pleased that the FCC is seeking public comments to address the failed TV content ratings system; it is time that the system works for families instead of only for Hollywood’s interests, and this is a positive step towards addressing this problem,” said PTC President Tim Winter in a statement.

"My prime fear is that the industry will end up controlling this regulatory review, just as it controls the application of the ratings, and just as it controls the Star Chamber oversight board. If the regulatory review is in any way under the industry’s thumb then the whole process, for which we’ve relentlessly fought for years, will be rendered meaningless.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.