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Viewer Discretion Advised

by Neena Louise

Viewer Discretion Advised. How many times have we heard this? The current television ratings system was supposed to clarify just how much discretion is advisable, but put into practice, it rarely serves its purpose. And does anyone really know what all those ratings mean? Or does anyone even notice anymore, given the enormous amount of screen clutter? Often a show's opening has a rating in the upper left corner; a closed-caption logo in the upper right; an animated color bug in the lower right corner; an ad banner in the lower left; the credits squeezed in the middle; and the opening sequence of the show under all that mess. If you had to read all the little captions and logos, you wouldn't even notice that the show had started, never mind see and take note of the rating.

Some of the ratings are obvious: G - general; PG - parental guidance. But how about TV-Y7-FV? Or TV-MA-V-S-L Fr??? I hadn't a clue what these meant, despite the hype about how great the ratings system would be as parental guidelines. For the uninformed, here is a quick guide:

TV-Y - All Children
TV-Y7 - Directed to Children over 7
TV-G - General Audiences
TV-PG - Parental Guidance Suggested
TV-14 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
TV-M (or TV-MA) - Mature Audiences Only

V - Violent Content
S - Sexual Content & Nudity
L - Adult Language
D - Suggestive Dialogue
FV - Fantasy Violence
Additionally, all V, S or L ratings indicate whether the V, S or L is occasional, frequent or widespread (like this makes SUCH a difference).

The ratings are supposed to clarify what type of content any given show has, but just what is the criteria? "Nudity" could mean too much flesh, rather than outright nudity. "Sexual Content" could mean a passionate kiss or "second-base"-type activity. "Adult Language"? Well, other than the blatant four-letter words, what exactly constitutes adult language? "Suggestive Dialogue" is especially vague. Many words have double-meanings depending on the context (or simply on the delivery), so what, exactly, warrants a "suggestive dialogue" label? Who decides? And why do they slap a certain rating on a certain show? The ratings are USELESS without this type of information, yet such information isn't so quick to come by (I had to go to three different web sites just to find the information contained in this column). And just how small a box are shows going to be put in? What's next? TV-PG-IF-CC-DIS-LA (Parents strongly cautioned; imaginative fantasy; cute content featuring people with disabilities, but on late at night)???

News and sports programs do NOT carry ratings. Oh, that makes sense. I guess everyone knows by now that the news is fraught with violence, coarse language and "mature situations", but what about sports? Is there no difference in the violence quotient between hockey and, say, beach volleyball? Sure, most people know which sports tend to be violent and which do not; but then don't most people also know there's a difference between Jerry Springer and Teletubbies? Do we really need a rating to tell us this?

The television ratings are so muddied and vague, I have to wonder what the point of them are. The most vague is "TV-14". The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board describes it thus: "This program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended. This program contains one or more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S), strong coarse language (L), or intensely suggestive dialogue (D)." You'd think they were talking about a pornographic slasher film, but it seems all of primetime gets this rating, so how is this helpful? How does this help parents decide whether their 13-year-old can watch Friends or not? There's only one way for parents to decide whether or not a show is appropriate for their children: Watch it (duh). It's important to understand that ratings are GUIDELINES, not RULES TO LIVE BY. Parents know (or certainly should know) their children and their children's capacity for understanding and their level of tolerance and maturity. I hardly think a group of strangers in a boardroom - however well-intentioned - knows how your child will react to the content of any given show. Come on, people! Stop allowing others to do your job for you!

The only thing the current ratings system does is give the networks a way of zeroing in on their target demographic group while keeping the government from meddling. Think about how much easier it is now for the networks to categorize their schedule into their key demographics and make it that much more attractive to their advertisers. All it does for the viewer is add more screen clutter which is similar to a stick of furniture: you know it's there, but you don't really see it. 
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