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Not Enough Control

By Tanya Dutta

Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, I turned on the television in my room. As a program started, some odd letters flashed on the left hand side of the screen: TV-something. What were they, these mysterious letters? A glitch of the emergency operating system? Some odd code to alien spaceships so their attacks could be synchronized? Perhaps even a subliminal message? In fact, the strange message in the corner of my screen was a part of the new system of television ratings.

Unfortunately for those who are depending on this new television ratings system, it seems that their best chance may lie in subliminal communication, because the system itself isn't all that helpful. The 30-second flash of alphabet soup in the corner of my eye does not indicate in any degree of detail what type of inappropriate content I am about to see on my screen. Instead, all I am provided is one of six different ratings, reminiscent of the movie-rating system, that offers a rough estimate of the level of violence, sex and bad language contained in the program. However, this system does not assist the parent who does not want his or her kid watching inordinate violence but does not mind bad language. And, to be quite honest, it doesn't help me to judge between different programs of varying degrees of offensiveness.

Another major flaw in the system is that the ratings are displayed only for the first 30 seconds of the program. Although this may work for movies, when everyone gets to the theatre at the beginning, it is significantly less helpful for television shows, when people have the propensity to channel-surf and flip on the television in the middle of a program. If a kid had the savvy to turn on the television at 35 minutes after the hour, the ratings would be gone and he or she would reap the benefits of rating-less television.

The present rating system was produced by a 21-member task force headed by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Pictures Association of America (the similarity to the ratings used for motion pictures should make sense now). One of its greatest perks is that it provides an easy way for parents to screen out certain programs using a V-chip by specifying the level of programming below which they deem unacceptable. However, the system as it exists is too simple--mixing in sex, blood and curses in one ultimate rating of age-appropriateness does not provide the discriminating viewer with very much information. Even a survey released by the media studies center reports that 79 percent of parents want a system that specifies the objectionable content rather than a general age rating.

So we have these flashes of letters which, I suppose, are better than nothing--or would be better if people actually knew what they meant. The only one I've figured out is that TV-G is for "Barney" and "Sesame Street." However, for the real problems, the shows which start out "Sesame Street" and end up Die Hard, the ratings are more difficult to understand.

And, ironic as this may sound, this problem may only get worse with the V-chip. In 1992, the Cable Act ensured that patently offensive sexual programming was all in one channel which was blocked from access unless one specifically requested to be able to view it. But in June of last year, the Supreme Court struck down that part of the Cable Act, arguing that the V-chip would ensure that children were protected and that further protection was, therefore, unnecessary.

Of course, the argument is that we could turn off the television completely. But television, like it or not, has become integrated into our society. We turn to the tube primarily for entertainment, but that entertainment becomes a part of our culture as well. Television has become the instrument that unites our country. Some people mourn the slow loss of regional accents due to the bland accent of most television personae.

We won't stop watching television. But even we non-children would like to screen out some of the very questionable images shown on television. A more comprehensive rating system would benefit everyone without affecting anyone's freedom of choice.

Tanya Dutta's column appears on alter-

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