Watchdogs: TV ruder, cruder despite ratings
System wasn't designed to change content
May 27, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sex, violence and crude language have become more common on U.S. prime-time television despite a voluntary ratings system intended to help parents choose shows appropriate for their children, a media watchdog group says.
The ratings system has actually prompted some in the television industry to push the envelope even further, said L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Parents Television Council.
"Television is the raunchiest it has ever been in spite of, or perhaps because of, the ratings system," Bozell said Wednesday.
The council studied two weeks of November sweeps programming for each of the past three years on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, WB and UPN.
"Sexual content, foul language and violent content combined rose by more than 30 percent from November 1996, just before the original ratings system was implemented, to November 1998," Bozell said.
"Sexual content alone increased by more than 42 percent, with ABC easily leading the networks in this category," the study found. "Fox and WB were close together in second and third."
WB is owned by Time-Warner, the parent company of CNN.
Broadcasters disagreed with the findings, citing a network-funded UCLA study from 1998 showing that networks had tempered the amount and nature of violence on their programs over the previous three years.
"We're not the Disney channel, and we're not supposed to be," said one broadcaster, asking to remain anonymous.
ABC -- home to the sex-sprinkled show "The Practice" -- dismissed the watchdog group's study as erroneous.
"ABC is a responsible programmer. This study is seriously flawed. Their numeric counts based on their subjective definitions could not possibly yield a meaningful evaluation of program content," an ABC statement said.
One industry sources argues the rating system was never intended to change programming content, only to give guidance to parents.
But some members of Congress believe the study proves broadcasters are ignoring the public interest.
"This report underscores the point that ratings V-chips are ultimately not the cure for what ails television," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. "Parents clearly want more than good labels on bad programs. They want higher standards."
Lieberman said the content of a TV station's programming should help determine whether its federal license is renewed. "I think it's time we look directly at programming content."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, has sponsored provisions in the juvenile justice bill the Senate passed last week authorizing the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to investigate whether Hollywood is marketing violent shows and games to children.
"It is in the public interest to know whether entertainment companies are making a killing off our kids," he said.
Another provision encourages TV networks, cable companies and the movie, music and video game industries to enter into a voluntary code of conduct.
Bozell and the lawmakers, who appeared together at a Capitol Hill news conference, said there are signs the entertainment industry is getting the message.
They pointed to CBS's decision last week to leave off its schedule a pilot series about a mob war in New York City because of concerns about its violence.
Citing the "current climate" of sensitivity regarding school violence, WB this week shelved the season finale of its popular series "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." The episode depicts students attacking a human who threatens them when he turns into a monster.
Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.
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