In a poll for its recent cover story "Has TV Gone Too Far?" Time magazine reported that 66% felt that officials had "overreacted" to Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl. Nevertheless, a clear majority of all respondents said there's still too much violence, profanity and sex on television, and more than half believe the Federal Communications Commission "should be stricter."
Meanwhile, columnist Frank Rich in The New York Times warns that politicians have already become far too aggressive, citing rampant "self-censorship" by TV stations. Rich writes: "At a certain point -- and we seem to be at that point -- fear takes over, allowing a mob to bully the majority over the short term."
Broader effort needed
In part, the prevailing confusion about where we stand in the struggle over pop culture indecency reflects the limited focus of recent efforts to "clean up" mass entertainment. While concentrating on a few high-profile events on TV, activists and officials have done little to address the omnipresent edginess and raunch on cable TV, in the music business or in video games. While attempts to expand FCC supervision into these arenas would prove unpopular, impractical and ill-advised, a meaningful extension and adjustment of content ratings could equip parents with information to enhance empowerment.
In feature films, such ratings have already helped to fuel marketplace forces friendly to family fare. A recent USA TODAY headline proclaims, "Family films outdrew R-rated movies in '04," indicating that PG products earned average box-office returns exceeding those for R-rated films by a ratio of nearly 5 to 1. Only one R-rated movie (The Passion of the Christ) made it to the box office top 10, even though 63% of all releases drew the "restricted adults only" designation.
While these figures indicate that Hollywood ratings help families find the less-edgy fare, they can't hide the confusion surrounding the lower, looser standards recently applied to the highly popular PG-13 rating. Many consumers remain oblivious to the vast gap between PG and PG-13 standards, and wrongly assume that both categories avoid harsh excesses in language, sex content or violence.
For instance, in the comedy hit Guess Who, Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher and other stars invoke the FCC-banned "S-word" some eight times -- despite a misleading PG-13 rating. Another successful PG-13 film, Queen Latifah's Beauty Shop, features abundant earthy talk about body parts and sex acts, much of it delivered by a leering, pre-teen boy who obsessively trains his video camera on female rear ends.
Rethink PG-13 rating
Such examples highlight the need for significant revisions in the rating system, while pointing the way to a moderate reform to address concerns of worried families without raising fears of censorship. The PG-13 category needs rethinking and relabeling, since the typical PG-13 release now contains enough sexual content and rough language to have earned an R-rating 10 years ago. It's also problematic that many moviegoers, including 6-year-olds, can buy tickets to PG-13 fare without challenge.
The new head of the Motion Picture Association, Dan Glickman, should make his mark by changing PG-13 to "R-13" -- recognizing that today's PG-13 pictures come much closer to "R" in edgy, adult-themed substance. It's also appropriate for theater-owners to make honest attempts to restrict admission to the new R-13 rating -- asking ticket holders unaccompanied by adults to show they're at least 13 before they're admitted.
At the same time that the new R-13 category enhances existing movie ratings, extending this entire system to the TV, cable, video game and music industries could significantly assist parents who feel assaulted by those popular formats.
It's time to acknowledge that the TV ratings adopted more than eight years ago have proved to be a shabby, irrelevant, hopelessly confusing failure. Many families remain unaware that these ratings even exist, and most others don't know how to use them (or the V-chip already embedded in their televisions). Few citizens outside of the industry could give a quick explanation of the difference between, say, the "TV Y7," the "TV G" and the "TV M" ratings.
As Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has repeatedly suggested (echoing my own recommendation to the House Judiciary Committee in 1999), we could all benefit from a "universal ratings system" with broadcast TV, cable, movies, video games and music CDs all categorized according to the same formula. The right scheme should follow the movie system of G, PG, R-13 (replacing PG-13), R and NC-17. Applying these recognizable and voluntary designations across the board could help inform the public, making for more savvy, vigilant consumers of every sort of entertainment offering.
In providing more comprehensible and uniform content ratings, show-business companies could simultaneously encourage those who say they seek more wholesome, family-friendly alternatives, and those who worry that restrictive puritans have already gone too far.
While headlines herald the box-office dominance of "family films" and marvel at the new muscle of anti-indecency crusaders in the TV business, few parents feel reassured by current offerings from the entertainment industry. In the midst of ongoing debate about media standards, the general public seems unable to decide whether we should fear too much censorship -- or too little.