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Senate Panel Rates Media Ratings Systems

On September 28, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space held a hearing on the effectiveness of media rating systems.

Arguing that the current media ratings are “overwhelming and confusing” to parents, Chair Sam Brownback (R-KS) said that the purpose of the hearing was to examine the possibility of implementing a uniform ratings system for all media. He explained that the motion picture, television, and video and computer game industries have made no efforts to voluntarily coordinate their rating systems, and suggested that he and other Members of Congress would support legislation requiring them to do so.

President and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Dan Glickman said that the MPAA “takes pride in the fact that the movie ratings system is recognized, familiar and such an engrained part of our popular culture that it is known and recognized by 98 percent of American moviegoers. Its triumph is owed to its simplicity. It is a common language that every parent speaks and easily understands. A movie rating is included along with the reasons the rating was selected for that film in all advertising for films. It is the dominant system for advance cautionary information about movies.”

Jack Valenti, former chairman of the MPAA, said that the purpose of the rating system is “to offer to parents some advance information about movies so that parents can decide what movies they want their children to see or not to see,” adding, “The entire rostrum of the rating program rests on the assumption of responsibility by parents. If parents don’t care, or if they are languid in guiding their children’s movie-going, the rating system becomes useless. Indeed, if you are 18 or over, or if you have no children, the ratings system has no meaning for you. Ratings are meant for parents, no one else.”

President of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Patricia Vance summarized the ESRB rating system, stating that the system, “although voluntary, has been universally adopted by the industry and today virtually all computer and video games sold in the U.S. carry an ESRB rating. In fact, most retailers in the U.S. refuse to stock games that do not carry an ESRB rating.” She explained that the ESRB rating system is based on “easily identifiable” rating symbols that suggest the most appropriate age group for each game and content descriptors “clearly stating” why a game received a particular rating. Ms. Vance also noted that the Kaiser Family Foundation “found that among all entertainment rating systems (TV, movies, music, and games), parents found the ESRB ratings to be the most useful, with 91 percent finding them ‘somewhat’ to ‘very useful.’” In response to concerns that “ratings creep” has caused more violent and sexual content to be allowed in games rated for younger audiences, she stated, “The E for Everyone category has been declining slightly each year, while the Teen and Mature categories have been gradually increasing. It’s not surprising that there are more Teen and Mature games because over the last decade the core audience for games has steadily aged. In fact, today, the core audience is 18-35 year olds and the average age of game players is now 29. Thus, it is perfectly logical to see game publishers create more titles aimed at this older consumer.” Stating that parents are involved in the purchase or rental of 83 percent of all computer and video games, Ms. Vance described the ESRB’s efforts to educate parents: “The ESRB launched a multi-channel consumer marketing campaign in October 2003 featuring the slogan ‘OK to Play? Check The Ratings.’ The campaign, composed of a public service announcement (PSA) and a retail partnership program, encourages parents to use both components of the rating system (rating symbols and content descriptors) to determine if a game is appropriate for their family.”

Testifying on behalf of the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board, Anthony Podesta, co-chairman of Podesta Mattoon, said that “the TV Parental Guidelines is a voluntary rating system that gives parents information about the age-appropriateness and content of television programs. Used in conjunction with the V-chip, which is now standard in all TV sets 13 inches and larger, the TV ratings allow parents to block out programming they think is unsuitable for their children. The system is an effective tool to help parents supervise the programming that comes into their homes.” He explained that “in order to give parents real-time information about a program’s rating, the ratings icons and associated content symbols for example, TV PG-V appear in the upper left-hand corner of the screen for 15 seconds at the beginning of all rated programs. The ratings information is also included in published television listings and appears in electronic program guides.” In order to educate parents, Mr. Podesta said that the television industry “undertook a comprehensive public education that we continue to build on today. Industry trade associations, individual broadcast and cable networks, affiliates, cable operators, and independent television stations have produced public service announcements to educate the public and promote the TV Parental Guidelines and parental controls…In addition, each year, the Monitoring Board hosts a booth at the annual PTA Convention and distributes information on the rating system.”

David Kinney, chief executive officer of PSVratings, Inc., testified on behalf of the Coalition for Independent Ratings Services. He explained that the goal of the coalition “is to increase dialogue and awareness about the value of independent ratings systems among policymakers and the public at large,” adding, “To this end, the Coalition recently submitted comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s proceeding on the impact of violent programming on children. The Coalition noted its support for an open V-chip, which would allow consumers to access rating systems of their choice, including independent, competitive systems like ours. We plan to participate in the FCC’s Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on interactivity in digital television, to work with partners in the industry towards an open V-chip that could one day allow consumers not merely to block violent programming, but have programming that meets their pre-selected preferences be suggested for family viewing. For instance, the PSVratings system could enable parents to program their V-chip by simply selecting the level of Profanity, Sex and Violence they deem appropriate for their children based upon the individual maturity level and sensitivities of each of their children.”

The subcommittee also heard testimony from Patti Miller, director of the Children and Media Program at Children Now. She cited a Kaiser Family Foundation survey that found: “About three-fourths of parents say they have used the movie ratings, while about half of parents say they have used the music advisories and video game ratings. When it comes to television, half of parents also say they have used the ratings, one in four of whom say they use them often. Unfortunately, many parents still are not familiar with the TV ratings: one in five say that they have never even heard of them. And many parents don’t recognize the content-based TV ratings, with only half able to identify the ‘V’ rating and fewer able to identify the ‘L’ and ‘S’ ratings.” Ms. Miller suggested that parents need to be provided with “more descriptive and accurate content-based information,” parental awareness of the media ratings should be increased, and digital technology should be used to provide parents with more information on the ratings.

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