TV Parental Guidelines ratings review directed by Congress
Two federal agents stand on a desert highway in front of an open van, reviewing the scene of a massacre. Blood splatter and spent bullet casings litter the asphalt, as one agent describes how the van driver was shot in the back of the head.
“Just another Sunday in paradise,” the other agent says.
And it’s just another episode of the CBS drama “NCIS: Los Angeles,” complete with the graphic violence that has become routine for broadcast and cable television, according to TV watchdog groups.
Now those groups are cheering a directive tucked into Congress’s recent spending bill that requires the Federal Communications Commission to review its ratings system for TV content for the first time since it was implemented more than 20 years ago.
“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. “Never, ever once has there been any oversight as to whether this system is doing what is promised to parents.”
The 2019 federal spending package orders the FCC to report to Congress within 90 days on the status of TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring system, which went into effect in January 1997 to provide information about the content of television programs.
The voluntary-participation system operates under a board of TV industry representatives who review content and assign labels ranging from TV-Y (for young children) to TV-MA (for mature audiences) that appear in the upper-left corner of TV screens during broadcasts. It’s modeled on the ratings system for movies.
“NCIS: Los Angeles,” whose first-run episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, receives a TV-14 rating, meaning its content is appropriate for viewers 14 years old and older.
But Common Sense Media, a family-friendly media monitor, says the investigative procedural drama, which often features representations of drug crimes and violence, is better suited for ages 18 and older.
Critics of the rating system say the industry-run board has incentives to keep advertisers’ dollars flowing and thereby avoid the MA rating, which shrinks the viewing audience. The lack of independent oversight allows programs that should be rated for mature audiences to be mislabeled as family-friendly fare, critics say.
They also note the proximity of violent TV content to actual acts of violence: The “NCIS: Los Angeles” episode “This Is What We Do,” referred to earlier, aired in November 2017, a little more than a month after a gunman killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more in Las Vegas.
The Parents Television Council compared TV programming a month after the Las Vegas shooting with programming that aired a month after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and found a dramatic rise in the depiction of guns and gun violence on television screens.
“Hollywood stands at the very nadir of hypocrisy,” said a 2018 report from the Parents Television Council. “So many voices in Hollywood, from actors to writers to producers, loudly condemn gun violence; but are unwilling to condemn their own industry for promoting a culture of violence.”
The effect of violent images on young minds has long been the subject of debate, especially after school shootings. Last year, President Trump appointed the Federal Commission on School Safety in the aftermath of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people died.
In December, the commission through the Department of Education issued its final report, which encouraged a review of the various voluntary ratings systems for media content.
“Children have 24/7 access to multiple forms of entertainment at their fingertips,” the report says.
But a skeptic referenced in the Education Department’s report said “violence on TV” can be a distraction from gun reform conversations in the aftermath of gun violence.
Mr. Winter, of the Parents Television Council, noted that the FCC has no direct regulatory power over the TV guidelines monitoring board.
The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring board did not respond to requests for comment. An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment beyond acknowledging the directive from Congress.
Meanwhile, the council said in its 2018 report on violence that CBS often noted for its older, family audiences led all broadcast networks in rates of depicted violence. CBS declined requests for comment.
In addition, a 2018 report from the Parents Television Council cited NBC and Fox as top offenders sexually explicit content not being labeled for mature viewers. The report specifically notes the NBC sitcom “A.P. Bio” about a disgruntled academic who settles for life as a high school teacher in Toledo, Ohio. It is rated TV-PG.
“Nearly every episode features multiple scenes of the teacher discussing his sex life, or using other sexual dialogue totally inappropriate for children, in front of his classroom of teenagers,” the council’s report says.
Generally, holding Hollywood and New York television executives accountable for programming has been a bipartisan issue. The Obama administration in 2013 issued a memo directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research causes and prevention of violence, including a review of violent and aggressive entertainment.