NEW YORK -- After years of resisting as censorship any attempt to regulate the content of television programs, the four broadcast networks are seeking to establish their own ratings system, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America's code for movies.
In meetings this week in New York and Los Angeles, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have been discussing a system that would allow them to assuage growing public objections to the violence and sexual content of some television programs and hold onto advertisers without jeopardizing the networks' long-standing argument that ratings constitute censorship.
The creation of the networks' own system is seen by many in the industry as an effort to seize the initiative and pre-empt any government effort to establish content ratings, as permitted under the Tele-Communications Act, which became law last week.
Should the Federal Communications Commission reject the industry's ratings as inadequate, a step that the law permits, the broadcasters would have firmer grounds for a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new law, industry officials said.
But the networks have several other motives as well, people close to the talks this week said, including overwhelming pressure from the public and from politicians angered by the level of violence and sex on television and in films.
In addition, ABC and Fox have recently signaled that they favor a rating system for the networks. Fear that one or the other might create its own system and publicize it as "family-friendly" is putting pressure on NBC and CBS, several officials at the networks said.
ABC, part of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., was recently acquired by Walt Disney Co., a conglomerate whose success is built on its image as family en-tertainment.
Any rating system devised by the networks -- whether similar to that used for movies, or using a different code, or perhaps age classifications -- would eventually enable consumers to screen out certain programs by using an electronic blocking device known as a V-chip, with the "V" standing for "violence," industry officials said. The Tele-Communications Act requires all new television sets to be equipped with the V-chip.
Objections to the amount of sex and violence on TV and in the movies have come from all sides of the political spectrum, from President Clinton to Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican majority leader; to William J. Bennett, the conservative former education secretary; to Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the original champion of the V-chip.
Mr. Clinton has invited the chief executives of the four broadcast networks and about a dozen cable-network executives to a meeting Feb. 28 on the issue of television content. The broadcast network executives are hoping to reach a consensus on a ratings system before that meeting.
"Family values" and the entertainment industry's role in promoting or destroying them is a potent topic in this election year, as the executives acknowledge.
At a closed annual meeting last week for top Capital Cities executives in Phoenix that was attended for the first time by Disney executives, Robert A. Iger, president of Capital Cities/ABC, told colleagues that the pressure for V-chip legislation reflected a wave of strong public opinion and that the company should find a way to allay that dissatisfaction, an industry executive said.
Fox's position in favor of a ratings system seems less predictable, given that the network has often been criticized for broadcasting sexually explicit shows, and that Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., which owns the network, has generally fought government regulation of broadcasting.
But officials at rival networks who insisted on anonymity suggested that giving such shows a rating would in a sense defuse criticism of them, because parents would be alerted to the content and could program their V-chip to block shows.
The same point has been made to explain the cable industry's receptiveness to an industry-devised ratings system. Although shows with coarse language, excessive violence or sexually suggestive scenes are more common on cable than on broadcast television, there are so many cable networks -- some known for such content -- that the industry as a whole is less averse to labeling.