PTC Asks FCC to Overhaul TV Content Ratings

Looking at the TV ratings system almost 20 years in, the Parents Television Council does not rate it highly, saying there are virtually no shows rated as suitable for the whole family in primetime, that shows are being mis-rated and that networks rating their own shows has always been problematic and an inherent conflict of interest. It wants the FCC to throw out the old system and start over and says it will make itself heard at the FCC and Congress—it has already met with members of the FCC's congressional oversight committees, according to PTC.

That campaign was launched Monday (April 4) with a just-released content study from the group, which has pushed for a return of "family" programming on broadcast and à la carte channel choices on cable.

The study found that there were no TV G rated shows on the Big Four broadcast networks in a two-week period in 2014 compared to 20 hours of such programming in the same period in 1997, and none in all of 2015. It did point out that NBC's Little Big Shots has recently debuted with a TV G rating and has done well, suggesting there is an audience for family-targeted programming.

PTC pointed out that there were no shows rated TV MA (for mature audiences) but suggested those shows were out there, just being mis-rated.

PTC president Tim Winter called on the FCC to overhaul the ratings system for both broadcast and cable.

He said he had shared some of the sexual language from primetime cable programs of a couple years back with two FCC chairs, saying both had jaw-dropping moments and that one was speechless and the other helped arrange a meeting with the ratings board (but with no productive result). Winter also said he had asked, and been denied, permission to bring a reporter (he suggested a couple including from B&C). He was denied, ditto for a request to bring someone from the FCC.

He identified the "one" FCC chair as Julius Genachowski, and the "other" as Tom Wheeler. He said he believed Wheeler had helped engineer the meeting with the ratings oversight board. An FCC spokesperson was checking on that at presstime on the Wheeler meeting but said otherwise the FCC would have no comment on PTC's announced campaign.

Winter says he thinks the competition with cable is probably the biggest single driver of the coarsening of broadcast content.

The major takeaways from the broadcast study, according to PTC are:

1. "Regularly-scheduled series rated TV-G (appropriate for all audiences) have been eliminated from primetime. In all practicality, family shows rated for all audiences do not exist;

2. "There are fewer programs on primetime broadcast television rated TV-PG;

3. "There are fewer differences between the content of programs rated TV-PG and those rated TV-14;

4. "Graphic content on television is increasing in both amount and intensity; yet

5. "All content on broadcast television is rated as appropriate for a 14-year-old child."

PTC's conclusion: Overhaul it. "Systemic reform of the voluntary, self-regulating TV content ratings system is needed," PTC says. "Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, public health advocates, and most of all, parents, must insist upon a television content ratings system that is accurate, consistent, transparent, and accountable to the public – and which meets the needs of those it was intended to serve."

"NAB believes parents are the best arbiters in deciding what programs are acceptable for children. We believe our program ratings system – coupled with the V-chip – gives parents the best tool for blocking inappropriate programming," the association said in a statement.

The system was created to work with the V-chip technology required by Congress, but also as a standalone, on-screen guide for parents.

The survey was based on a study of past PTC research and an examination of primetime entertainment programming on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC during the first two weeks of the November 2014 sweeps period, as well as content from some current shows.

Winter said the report would be shared with members of the FCC and the FCC oversight committees in Congress.

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.