Movie and TV Ratings in the Age of Streaming

In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission introduced the TV Parental Guidelines, a set of ratings similar to existing movie ratings, to provide parents with programming information. But today, we consume television in ways never imagined in 1997. In the age of all-streaming, do these tools still have the impact they once did?

Media critic Stephen Kearse thinks not. While he writes about the rating systems used by both the television and film industries, “Despite the streaming services’ talk of change and innovation, they still rely on the ratings of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the TV Parental Guidelines to shape and present their content. […] the notes felt increasingly disconnected.

Considering that both rating systems were established long before the streaming era, this may be true.

The rating system for television is similar to the more familiar version created by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which first appeared as the Hays Code, “a tedious production standard, full of wacky prohibiting subjects as arbitrary as possible. white slavery, banditry and indecent dancing” codified between 1922 and 1930. Rubbing shoulders with its inconsistent and somewhat authoritarian restrictions, the MPAA amended the Hays Code more than once before abandoning it altogether in 1966 .

The MPAA established a new self-regulating system in 1968, with G, M, R, and X ratings, with each letter moving up a scale of suitability for children (PG-13 and NC-17 were added in 1984 and 1990, respectively, the latter replacing X). But as critics argue, the ratings really served as an economic indicator for theater owners, rather than a consistent guide for parents. In short, the higher the rating, the fewer tickets sold. Television rating systems have followed a similar pattern.

The TV Parental Guidelines were established under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and although prompted by Congress, the networks voluntarily enforce the guidelines and decide on ratings. This echoes similar attempts at self-regulation, like the record industry’s parental warning stickers, to national support for the PTA. But as media scholar Lynne Joyrich writes, rather than offering a clear roadmap for parents, the ratings were more likely to “reproduce the connotative uncertainty of the film production code than the denotative alternative.”

TV ratings were confusing for viewers and creators alike, and, as host and producer Aaron Augenblick explains, “it’s all pretty arbitrary and decided by lawyers.” The guidelines include both an assessment and content indicators. For example, a show could be rated TV-14, indicating that parental guidance should be provided to viewers under 14, and also include a content indicator such as V, indicating violence.

These guidelines were accompanied by a digital enforcer: the V-chip. Also introduced as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the V-chip allows “viewers to block programming based on age or content indicators. (or a combination of both),” says Joyrich. All new televisions 13 inches or larger were to have them by 2000. It was not a smooth transition, however. As Kearse notes, several studies “found the technology and guidelines unused and unclear to most parents.”

And now, “every human with access to a smartphone and working Wi-Fi is one URL away from pretty much anything,” Kearse points out. “What do these companies have to gain by adopting a contested, unpopular, unenforceable and non-binding rating system?

Although there is more content, in more places than ever before, the old system continues, despite its apparent uselessness. “If this is truly the age of choice and recommendation,” observes Kearse. “It’s baffling that streamers remain in the grip of a rating system that doesn’t improve any of the services.”

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By: Stephen Kearse

The Baffler, n° 53 (September-October 2020), p. 52-59

Baffler Foundation

By: Lynne Joyrich

Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, no. 3 (spring 2001), p. 439 to 467

University of Chicago Press

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