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FCC Explores Improved TV Ratings, V-Chip FCC Explores Improved TV Ratings, V-Chip

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FCC Explores Improved TV Ratings, V-Chip

President Bill Clinton holds up a V-chip during ceremonies where he signed the Telecommunications Reform Act in 1996.(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of David  Hatch
February 25, 2011

The Obama administration is exploring an overhaul of the nation’s television ratings, potentially enabling the use of alternatives from religious, parental, and other groups that utilize more-rigorous standards, government, industry, and advocacy sources said.

Parents could program their televisions to filter content based on guidance from Focus on the Family and similar organizations that have independent ratings, the sources said.

Key to all of this is updating the so-called V-chip, which is required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The technology, installed in all TV sets with screens that are 13 inches or larger, allows viewers to use the ratings to block programming they consider objectionable.


Also under discussion is the idea of adopting more-uniform standards for how TV shows, and perhaps other forms of entertainment, are rated. In recent weeks, the office of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has been reaching out to a variety of groups concerned about the issue regarding possible changes to the ratings scheme, FCC and other sources said.

The updates would modernize a 14-year-old TV-ratings system. Television networks and studios voluntarily agreed to provide the icons, such as TV-PG and TV-MA, in 1996 and formally introduced them a year later.

Making the system more user-friendly could play well with Republicans and conservative-leaning Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have been critical of Genachowski for spearheading an agenda they sometimes view as too regulatory.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., whose panel oversees the agency, is a longtime proponent of curbing television violence. Rockefeller considered offering legislation in 2007 that would have required the FCC to restrict excessively graphic scenes on broadcast and subscription TV. His office did not immediately comment on possible ratings changes.

“We did get an inquiry from the FCC on the TV monitoring-board process and on how TV shows are rated,” said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, referring to an advisory board whose members include his group, the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and parental and children’s organizations.

Advisory board member Jeff McIntyre, director of national policy for Children Now, a nonprofit advocacy group, said in a telephone interview that there have been “initial signs of interest in resurrecting this issue,” not just from the FCC but also from Congress.

An FCC source said that the agency met with the NAB, MPAA, and NCTA this month in preparation for a larger meeting with the entire advisory board in March.

Since its introduction in 1999, the V-chip has been heralded as an important tool for parents; but it has also been maligned as an innovation that many Americans are unfamiliar with or find too confusing to use.

There is also a growing consensus among experts that the chip is outdated for today’s viewers, who are accustomed to using sophisticated digital sets that increasingly take on the functionality of computers.

A possible vehicle for FCC action on TV ratings would be a pending regulatory proceeding at the commission required by the 2008 Child Safe Viewing Act, which directs the agency to examine the availability of advanced blocking technologies that work with various communications devices. The agency plans to issue a second “notice of inquiry” stemming from the proceeding that could be used this year as a platform to explore changes to the ratings system.

Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry, and Common Sense media, a nonprofit devoted to improving the lives of kids, are among the groups that independently rate TV shows, movies, music, and video games at and, respectively. They stand to build much larger audiences for their reviews under the changes being contemplated.

In addition to facilitating access to a wider array of ratings, a newer V-chip could be designed to make it easier for parents to locate educational content geared toward children that now bears the “EI” symbol, which stands for “educational and informational" programming.

Broadcasters and cable networks or program producers now rate their own TV shows, prompting accusations that they have a conflict of interest and sometimes choose ratings that are not stringent enough for their content. Another complaint is that there’s no uniformity in how each rating is applied, resulting, for example, in “TV-14” being used for shows featuring widely varying degrees of graphic content or foul language.

Under pressure from Congress and watchdogs, networks in 1997 added the icons  “d,” “s,” “v,” “l,” and “fv”, indicating that shows contain suggestive dialogue; sexual or violent content or foul language; or fantasy violence. Cable and satellite TV systems offer additional parental controls featuring more blocking options.

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