Monday, February 22, 2010

Media Monday-Media Ratings Systems

You all probably know that television stations, games, and most forms of screen entertainment are rated for specific target audiences. We've all seen symbols like this one on the screen when our favorite show starts:
(By the way, don't do a Google search for "tv-y" with the safe search off. It comes up with some really inappropriate images! Who knew?! I think I might be scarred...)

So here's a review of what it all means, according to the FCC, which established the system:
  • TV-Y (All Children -- This program is designed to be appropriate for all children.) Whether animated or live-action, the themes and elements in this program are specifically designed for a very young audience, including children from ages 2-6. This program is not expected to frighten younger children.
  • TV-Y7 (Directed to Older Children -- This program is designed for children age 7 and above.) It may be more appropriate for children who have acquired the developmental skills needed to distinguish between make-believe and reality. Themes and elements in this program may include mild fantasy or comedic violence, or may frighten children under the age of 7. Therefore, parents may wish to consider the suitability of this program for their very young children. Note: For those programs where fantasy violence may be more intense or more combative than other programs in this category, such programs will be designated TV-Y7-FV.
  • TV-G (General Audience -- Most parents would find this program suitable for all ages.) Although this rating does not signify a program designed specifically for children, most parents may let younger children watch this program unattended. It contains little or no violence, no strong language and little or no sexual dialogue or situations.
  • TV-PG (Parental Guidance Suggested -- This program contains material that parents may find unsuitable for younger children.) Many parents may want to watch it with their younger children. The theme itself may call for parental guidance and/or the program contains one or more of the following: moderate violence (V), some sexual situations (S), infrequent coarse language (L), or some suggestive dialogue (D).
  • TV-14 (Parents Strongly Cautioned -- 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).
  • TV-MA (Mature Audience Only -- This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17.) This program contains one or more of the following: graphic violence (V), explicit sexual activity (S), or crude indecent language (L).
A similar rating system exists for games, but the standards for it take into account a much broader range content considerations than the FCC's standards. The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board, you can see what their rating symbols look like on their website), which sets these standards, defines the ratings as follows:
  • Titles rated EC (Early Childhood) have content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Contains no material that parents would find inappropriate.
  • Titles rated E (Everyone) have content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.
  • Titles rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) have content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.
  • Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.
  • Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
  • Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.
  • Titles listed as RP (Rating Pending) have been submitted to the ESRB and are awaiting final rating. (This symbol appears only in advertising prior to a game's release.)
When it comes to games, anyone who reads this weekly series knows that I strongly advocate parental involvement in setting quality and content standards for children's viewing and gaming time, and these ratings are a valuable tool. Don't approve of a particular game? Don't buy it! But television can be more difficult to control. Enter my support of the V-chip. According to the FCC website, all televisions with a 13-inch screen or larger manufactured after January 1, 2000 are equipped with the V-chip. With the chip, not only do parents have the power to block particular ratings, but they can also block particular shows or channels. I've used it myself, and it's very easy to use and versatile.

The trick to the V-chip is that programming access is available through a four-digit code. Unfortunately, four digits are pretty easy to crack, especially when parents use a memorable date or some other easily memorized, easily thought of number. I'd recommend using an unusual number (last four of your driver's license, credit card, or insurance group numbers) or, better yet, finding a number to use through a random number generator online. At, for example, you just enter the number range you want to use (for our purposes 1000-9999) and click "search." If the result seems too simple, search again. However you chose your access code, I recommend changing the number on a regular basis if you have particularly determined children!

The best thing about the V-chip, especially when children's screen time is further limited by the frequent use of DVR or TiVo, is that it allows parents to customize their children's exposure according to their own family's values. Just because a show is rated "E" doesn't mean I want my child to see it! The same goes with games. The Bratz video game, for example, might be rated "E," but I don't think it promotes healthy behavior or a functional definition of female interests and behaviors. What the rating tells me is what audience is being targeted. When I watch a show or evaluate a game, I need to bear that age group in mind.

We modern parents have so many tools at our disposal! With a little effort, we can use those tools to make the world a safer, more pleasant place for our families and our kids.

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