Cleveland State University
In January 1996, with the House voting 414 to 16 and the Senate voting 91 to 5, the first major rewrite of communications regulation in a half-century was approved. One provision in the new Telecommunications Act required every TV set sold in the U.S. to come with the ability to block programming (the V-chip) based on an electronically encoded rating. The entertainment industry itself was required to develop the rating system, which would identify violence, sex, and other indecent material, and agree voluntarily to broadcast signals containing such ratings. In December 1996, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) presented an on-screen system that separated entertainment programs on broadcast, cable, and public television into six age-based categories: TV-M (mature audiences only); TV-14 (may be inappropriate for children under 14); TV-PG (parental guidance suggested); TV-G (suitable for all audiences), Y-7 (suitable for children 7 and older), and Y (suitable for children of all ages).
It did not take long before critics of the proposed rating system went public with their concerns. The Parents Television Council—the entertainment-monitoring arm of the conservative media watchdog Media Research Center—pronounced the MPAA ratings “hopelessly vague,” “inconsistent,” and “contradictory.” National Parent Teacher Association president Joan Dykstra called the industry’s age-based system “confusing and insufficient.” Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), chairperson of the Communications Sub-committee, feared that parents would find the rating system counterproductive when attempting to influence their children’s televiewing habits and practices. Even Edward Markey (D-Mass.), father of the V-chip legislation that prompted the ratings, said that “the industry system doesn’t give parents information they need to make appropriate decisions for their own kids, and it won’t give them the choices they need to block programming.” The Annenberg Public Policy Center and the National Association of Broadcasters confirmed these observations. They reported that almost two-thirds (65.3%) of parents were not using the rating system to guide their children’s viewing.
Although the MPAA television advisory system was not a resounding success, the Communication Research Center (CRC) at Cleveland State University sought to identify those parents who did employ the ratings in their mediation of television use in the household, and profile the type of parent most likely to use the ratings. By way of a national survey, the investigation reached the following general conclusions about ratings usage:
- Parents who engaged in high induction/low sensitization child rearing practices—that is, parents more likely to influence their children using reasoning, explanation, and appeals to pride and achievement (induction) rather than by using actual or implied power, physical punishment, and the deprivation of material objects or privileges (sensitization)—were more likely to employ the rating system than other parents;
- Of the parents using the ratings advisories in their mediation of television, these high induction/low sensitization parents were more likely to use the ratings to inspire and guide discussions of programs. High sensitization/low induction parents were more likely to use ratings as a method to directly restrict viewing preferences or influence viewing practices;
- Parents who believed that TV was likely to have significant positive or negative consequences were more likely to employ the rating system in their mediation than parents unconcerned about the impact of TV on their children;
- Those who perceived TV’s impact to be primarily cognitive, influencing thought processes and abilities, or emotional were more likely to employ the rating system in their discussions about TV; those who perceived TV’s impact to be primarily behavioral were more likely to use the ratings as a method to directly restrict viewing preferences and practices;
- Parents of young girls were more likely to employ the rating system in their mediation than were parents of young boys or older children; and
- If the father was identified as the primary rule-maker and rule-enforcer in the family, the rating advisories were mostly used as a method to directly restrict viewing preferences or practices. Mothers and parental dyads as the rule-making and rule-enforcing agent were more likely to employ the ratings in discussions.
The investigation also profiled the type of parent most likely to embrace the rating advisory system. In line with the above information, the most avid users of the ratings were high inductive child rearers who believed that television could have a significant impact on children, particularly with regard to their cognitive abilities and the effort with which they employ them. Interestingly, these parents had children who, according to the scientific literature, were least vulnerable to television’s impact and tended to need parental mediation and ratings advisories the least. They were:
- high academic achievers, most of whom were school-classified as intellectually gifted and participating in special education opportunities;
- low-to-moderate consumers of television;
- often participants in co-viewing with parents and/or older siblings; and
- not given a TV set for their bedrooms.
Nonetheless, most of these parents were concerned about the impact of television on their children and, thus, employed the ratings in their discussions. Much of the concern focused on the perceived waste of time associated with televiewing, television serving as a distraction from important tasks and assignments, and the belief that their children were often exposed to age-inappropriate programming and objectionable (i.e., sexist, ageist, aggressive) content.
In the summer of 1997, the age-based television advisory system was revamped to include content-specific information. There is no evidence that the system is being used any differently than the age-based ratings by parents of gifted children—that is, as fodder for discussion when planning to watch or while watching television. Similarly, when the availability of the V-chip becomes a reality in late 1998, it would seem unlikely that parents of gifted children would modify their child-rearing strategies and use this technology to block programming from their children. While the advisories were essentially preaching to the choir, the V-chip is likely to fall on deaf ears.
Robert Abelman is the author of Reclaiming the Wasteland: TV and Gifted Children (Hampton Press)