The latest episode of Fox’s The Following, a sophomore drama about a charismatic serial killer with legions of followers who do his bidding, perfectly illustrates how deeply flawed the television rating system is.
In it, a young woman is taken hostage by the psychopathic follower of a charismatic serial killer. He holds a knife to her throat and slowly draws it across her neck, slicing her throat open as blood runs from the wound. The killer is gunned down by police and his victim collapses to the floor, dead. The victim is shown again later in a close-up that shows the bloody gaping slit across her throat.
That episode was rated TV-14. That means that in the judgment of the Fox Broadcasting Network, a woman having her throat brutally, graphically slit open on prime time television is no worse than the off-color humor found on How I Met Your Mother, or The Big Bang Theory, or indeed, the nearly half of all prime time series that receive a TV-14 rating.
But of course, whenever Hollywood is criticized for distributing content that is too violent, too vulgar, too sexualizing, their first line of defense is the TV ratings and the V-Chip. That voluntary standard the networks agreed to nearly 20 years ago to avoid Congressional interference in their industry. “If your child saw something inappropriate it’s YOUR FAULT! We did our job! We labeled the program!” But anyone who’s paying attention knows that the TV ratings are a sham. It’s a dog and pony show intended to pull attention away from the real issue, which is that TV content has gotten progressively worse over the years, and the rate of its decline has only accelerated since the introduction of the TV ratings.
The late George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania identified the fatal flaw inherent in the V-Chip and the television ratings system that goes along with it:
The V-chip is not the solution. That technology merely protects the industry from the parents, rather than the other way around. It only facilitates business as usual… The V-chip is a sideshow and a diversion. I have observed this game since the 1970s. It is called ‘the carrot and the stick.’ Legislators posture in public, shaking the stick; and then vote the carrot of multibillion dollar windfalls for the same companies they pretend to threaten. They may even extract some meaningless concessions to calm the waters, take the heat off their media clients – who are among their major bankrollers – and call it a victory.
But the industry knows better. The cover story of the 14 August 1996 issue of the trade journal Broadcasting & Cable… is titled “Why the Markey Chip Won’t Hurt You.” In fact, it can only help the industry. It’s like the major polluters saying, “We shall continue business as usual, but don’t worry, we’ll also sell you gas masks to ‘protect your children’ and have a ‘free choice!’ [George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, responding to the question "Is Media Violence Free Speech" in a debate with Todd Gitlin, June 1997. Wired Magazine.]
Television networks are financially motivated to underrate their programs, because a higher rating could scare off sponsors. In a study released last December, the PTC found that although the violence on broadcast television was comparable to that on TV-MA-rated cable series’, every broadcast series was rated TV-14. The MA rating is a symbol of prestige for a cable network (in the same way virtually every Best Picture Oscar Nominee is rated R), but can be the kiss of death for a broadcaster that is wholly reliant on ad revenue.
But in the case of serial-killer dramas like The Following, or Hannibal, an MA rating is clearly warranted.
An MA rating would mean that if parents knew nothing about the program other than the age-based rating, they could still make a reasonably informed decision about whether or not to allow their teen to watch. It would also mean that parents using the V-Chip would not have to worry about their child accidentally stumbling across this content while innocently changing the channels.
But because an MA rating would probably mean a loss of viewers and loss of revenue, Fox gives it a lower rating, knowing that there will be no consequences for doing so.
In 2007 Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a report on the impact of violent television programming on children. Among other things, the FCC concluded, based on that report, that it could constitutionally regulate violent content and that blocking technologies, such as the TV ratings system, are ineffective to control children’s exposure to violence.
Six years later, the FCC still has not acted on that report, and violence is as graphic, wide-spread, and accessible to children as ever.
Something clearly needs to change. It’s time for meaningful reform of the television ratings system.