US Television Content Rating System

Most people are familiar with the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) content ratings system put in place to inform the viewer of media content and the age group for which a program is most suited. The MPAA ratings have been in place since 1968, but television content did not get its own rating system until the 1990s. The majority of homes in America have at least one television set and it is up to parents to monitor the media content for their children are exposed to. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted to help parents understand which TV content was suitable for which age groups. This Act of Congress mandated that by the year 2000 all televisions of at least 13” across be installed with a V-Chip to allow parents to block inappropriate content. It also developed a content rating system to be applied to most television content.

The content rating system mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and modified in 1997, applies to all network television broadcasts, excluding news and sports programs, religious programming, and home shopping programming. Movies that are modified from their original format to be shown on television are rated using the TV content rating system. Movies that are shown in unedited form on cable movie channels keep the original MPAA rating. The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board, comprised of industry insiders and impartial representatives, oversees the television ratings system, but ratings are assigned to programming by the individual networks. Basic age-based ratings for television content were introduced by the 1996 legislation.

This rating system was quickly deemed inadequate because it did not specify exactly what content was considered objectionable. Studies showed that parents wanted more information about the content of television shows so that they could make an informed decision about their children's viewing habits. In 1997 content description ratings were added to the age-based ratings, but some studies have argued that the television content rating system is still confusing and needs to be improved further. The current U.S. television content rating system is:

TV-Y: Made specifically for young children.

TV-Y7: Made for older children age seven and older.

TV-Y7-FV: Made for older children age seven and older but contains fantasy violence not found in TV-Y7.

TV-G: Suitable for all ages but not made specifically for children.

TV-PG: Parents may want to exercise caution as content may not be suitable for young children.

TV-14: Not suitable for children under age 14.

TV-MA: Designed for mature audiences only. Not suitable for children under age 17.

The 1997 revision to the content rating system involved adding content-based ratings on top of the age-based ratings. The content ratings are:

S: Sexual content

V: Violence

L: Coarse or crude language

D: Sexually explicit dialogue

FV: Fantasy Violence (only used with TV-Y7-FV)

The content ratings combined with the age ratings look like this: TV-PG-V, TV-14-VL or TV-MA-VSL

A rating of TV-PG-V means that the program has less explicit violence than in a TV-14-V-rated program, which has less explicit violence than in a TV-MA-V-rated program. The television content rating is displayed in the top left-hand corner of the television screen during the first 15 seconds of a television program. The rating is repeated after an hour if a show runs for more than an hour and some networks also repeat the rating after commercial breaks.

Studies conducted after the television ratings system went into effect have found that the ratings system can be confusing to parents; some parents who took part in studies did not know what the different ratings meant and a significant minority thought that the ratings should be simplified and that there should be one ratings system for television, movies, and video games. A Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that the majority of parents either did not use the V-Chip system, or did not fully understand the ratings system.

The V-Chip system, and the ratings system that it uses, were intended to help parents control the level of violent and sexually explicit content that children are exposed to through television media. Although studies have questioned the usefulness of the V-Chip system its advent marked a turning point in government intervention in television viewing habits. Research has pointed to the harmful effects that viewing violent and sexually explicit content has on young children. The V-Chip and television content rating system are tools that parents can use to help control their children's television viewing habits, but they are best used with an understanding of what the content ratings mean. It is easier to keep children out of R-rated movies than it is to keep them from watching inappropriate content on their television screens, but the television content rating system, in place since 1996, can help parents to understand which television programs may, or may not be, appropriate viewing material for their children.