TV Rating System Offers Little Help To Parents In Monitoring Violence And Alcohol, Study Indicates

March 09, 1998

The age-based TV program rating system unveiled last fall as a guide to prime time TV offers little help to parents who want to protect their children from television violence or alcohol-saturated programming, according to a recently completed study of the fall 1997 TV season by George Gerbner, Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications at Temple University.

With the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expected to announce its assessment of the ratings system at a hearing on Thursday, March 12, in Washington, the findings of the study raise questions about the ratings' effectiveness. The study reveals little difference in the number of violent action scenes per hour between the shows rated TV-G (suitable for all ages) and those with either a TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children) or TV-14 rating (unsuitable for children under 14).

In fact, TV-G-rated programs contained only one-third fewer violent scenes than shows rated TV-14, the highest age category.

The following table indicates the average number of violent action scenes per hour during 50.5 hours of prime time dramatic programming, according to the age-graded ratings:

The content labels which were also introduced to further differentiate programming content have proven somewhat more helpful, Gerbner's study reports. In response to lobbying by citizen action groups, ABC, CBS and Fox adopted the following content labeling system:

* D - Adult themes
* L - Language
* S - Sex
* V - Violence
* No label (the program has none of the above)

Prime time dramatic programming with a "V" content warning was found to be over three times more violent--presenting violence once every 11 minutes--compared to shows with no content warning label, which contained violent scenes every 38 minutes.

The average number of violent action scenes per hour during 50.5 hours of prime time dramatic programming, according to content label is as follows:

Depictions of alcohol use during prime time are more likely to be coupled with programs marked by adult themes, adult language and sexual situations than with violence.

"Alcohol is generally depicted in prime time dramatic programming as satisfying and risk-free with no adverse health effects," notes Gerbner. "It is relatively rarely linked to violence, despite the fact that in real life, there is a strong correlation between alcohol and both adverse health affects and violent behavior."

The table below shows the average number of alcohol scenes per hour during 50.5 hours of prime time dramatic programming according to the two rating systems:

It is not popularity that drives the violence-saturated programming, according to Gerbner. "While that's what we're led to believe, in fact violence depresses ratings.

"What's really behind TV violence is its global marketability. As TV producers find it increasingly difficult to break even at home, they are reaching for the global market. Violence is a dramatic ingredient that needs no translation. It's image-driven and says 'action' in any language."

"Mindless TV violence and risk-free alcohol are not expressions of artistic freedom or of reality," says Gerbner. "On the contrary, they are marketing formula imposed on program creators and foisted on the children of the world. Citizens own the airways. We should demand that it be free and fair, and not just 'rated.'"

Gerbner's study was conducted in conjunction with the Cultural Indicators Research Project, a data bank and research base that investigates the relationship of long-term exposure to recurrent elements in television and viewer conceptions about the world. The Project periodically publishes a Violence Profile, and a Diversity Index comparing the cast of prime-time dramatic characters to the actual demographics of the American population.

For more information or to reach Professor Gerbner, call Harriet K. Goodheart, director, at Temple's News Bureau, 215-204-7476.

Temple University

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