If ABC, NBC and CBS follow Fox's lead in coming days and promise to impose a ratings system for sex and violence on their programs, the word "historic" will be sounded often and loudly from Washington to Hollywood. After all, the networks have resisted calls for a ratings system for more than 25 years.
But such self-regulation by the networks may simply be a bad rerun of the movie industry's evasive tactics rather than a watershed development, say media scholars. In their analysis, the proposed ratings system -- which will be modeled on one instituted in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America -- is mainly an attempt by the networks to dodge government regulation. It will neither reduce violence on the airwaves nor enable parents to keep objectionable programs out of their homes, they say.
"It is primarily a delaying tactic that's intended to alleviate the pressure," says George Gerbner, professor and dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Remember two years ago when there were nine bills pending in Congress on television violence and the networks declared that they were going to put advisories on violent programs?" Dr. Gerbner asks. "Then, at the end of the fall season after the pressure died down, they decided they couldn't find any violent programs."
Shirley Peroutka, director of the communications department at Goucher College, calls the ratings proposal "another bogus system of self-regulation by the networks to get parents and politicians off their backs."
"It's always the same," says Douglas Gomery, author of several books on the film and television industry and a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park. "They get into some kind of trouble in Hollywood, and then they rally around industry self-regulation to head off any possibility of government control. It happened with films in the 1960s, and now we're headed down the exact same road with television."
The road to a network ratings system runs straight through the heartland of our culture wars, with enough twists and turns to make ideological fellow travelers out of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole.
Traffic on the road has been very heavy recently: passage into law of the telecommunications bill with its V-chip provision, release of a highly publicized study of television violence by the cable industry, trial balloons from three networks on a ratings system, an announcement from Fox that it was committed to rating its shows and a summit scheduled for next week in Washington between President Clinton and network executives.
It is all part of a pattern of new network ownership and election-year politics converging with a growing public concern over sex and violence in television and film. But it is a pattern not easily understood because of spin-doctoring from Network Row, Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail.
The first two dots to connect are the V-chip legislation and the ratings system. Two weeks ago, Mr. Clinton signed the telecommunications bill into law, with its V-chip provision requiring all new television sets starting in 1998 to have a V-chip -- a computer chip that would read ratings codes embedded in programs and block shows with ratings deemed undesirable by the set's owners.
But for this system to work, a ratings system is needed. Another part of that provision gives the television industry one year to develop and institute a ratings system on its own. If the industry fails to do so, the Federal Communications Commission can step in and create a government ratings system -- though, under the new law, the FCC does not have the authority to force the networks to adopt its system, a fact missed in many analyses.
The networks knew by the start of the year that the telecommunications bill was going to pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by Mr. Clinton. But until two weeks ago, they seemed united in their contempt for the V-chip provision -- mocking it as impractical, unconstitutional and vowing to fight it in court.
"It is the opinion of our attorneys that the V-chip legislation is unconstitutional," Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's West Coast president,
told reporters at the winter press tour last month in Los Angeles.
"The whole tone of it is just ridiculous," added Bob Wright, NBC's president and chief executive officer.
"It's a logistical nightmare," said Les Moonves, CBS Entertainment president, arguing that television has thousands of times more hours of programming each year than the feature
film industry. It would be impossible to rate it all, he said.
So, what happened in the last week or so that made the networks suddenly change their tune?
One factor involves network reaction to Mr. Clinton's State of the Union Address on Jan. 23, in which he said, "I challenge the broadcast industry to do what the movies have done: To identify your programs in ways that help parents to protect their children." Mr. Clinton followed that with a call for the network executives to come to Washington Feb. 29 to discuss "television violence and better programs for our children."
Initially, some network executives dismissed Mr. Clinton's words campaign rhetoric in an election year, but not executives at ABC.
According to an ABC source who asked that her name not be used, one reason for that is Disney's recent takeover of ABC. Disney's brand identity -- its single, most important resource in distinguishing ABC from all the other channels in the burgeoning electronic marketplace -- is that of family entertainment.
In a public relations sense, ABC executives know that they more than anyone else cannot afford to come to the White House and appear indifferent or callous to Mr. Clinton's proposals on television, children, violence and parental empowerment -- no matter how calculated they might be.
Disney CEO Michael Eisner believes the drumbeat from Washington for television reform are resonating with ABC viewers -- a message ABC President Robert Iger shared with senior management at a meeting earlier this month. And Mr. Eisner is right about that resonance.
Mr. Dole sounded the first attack on Hollywood for its portrayals of sex and violence in a speech on May 31. Mrs. Clinton picked up the ball and advanced it in her "White House Conference on Children and Television" in August. Like Mr. Clinton's call in his State of the Union message, both have met with much discussion in the press and favorable results in opinion polls.
Feeling the united network front crumbling in the wake of ABC's new position, Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch tried to seize the public relations initiative last week by announcing, "We have decided to implement an MPAA-like ratings system for the television programs on Fox. Our goal is to help parents by providing them with information while continuing to respect the creative freedom of our producers. We are prepared to act unilaterally if necessary."
In light of one major Fox programming strategy, which involves trying to appeal to teens through shows with clueless parents ("Beverly Hills, 90210") or no parents at all ("Party of Five"), Mr. Murdoch's announced desire to help parents has been met with some skepticism.
"I wonder if rating a show as violent or sexy won't actually result in a larger teen audience for Fox," Dr. Peroutka says.
A study of advisories and ratings released last week by the University or Wisconsin offers some support for Dr. Peroutka's hunch. "The findings regarding the effect of advisories and ratings on children's choices of programs suggest caution," the study concludes. "In the main experiment, the presence of 'parental discretion advised' and the 'PG-13' and 'R' ratings increased boys' interest in programs and movies."
"The larger question, though, is whether the system that the networks come up with will address the patterns of violence in American television in a meaningful way, Dr. Peroutka says. "If it's going to be like the the one for films, we have to ask if that's made any real difference?"
An opposite effect
In the words of Dr. Gerbner, the dean of academic researchers on media violence, "Most people do not look at ratings even for the motion pictures. If they do, they are more likely to be attracted to an R rating than not It is just another way for the networks to avoid dealing with the real issue of violent programming part of the historic network pattern."
The history of network responses to public and political pressure for reform is depressing in its singular lack of social conscience.
In 1954, Estes Kefauver chaired the first Senate hearing to take on television violence. The networks got Mr. Kefauver to hold off on proposed regulation by asking for time to do what they termed "major scientific research" on the issue.
In 1961, Senator Thomas Dodd held hearings on TV violence and children, and the networks again bought more time by saying, "We are now moving significantly in this area of research on the effects of television on children."
By the time the networks admitted in 1968 that they had no research and, in fact, never had actually been involved in any of the kind promised to the senators, it didn't matter -- the furor had subsided and few remembered the Kefauver or Dodd hearings.
And so it went in hearings through the '70s, '80s and 1990s up to those chaired by Illinois Senator Paul Simon starting in 1993 -- the networks buying time with vows to reduce violence or proposals like the one cited by Dr. Gerbner on parental advisories.
Here we go again
And here we are again today with the networks saying they are going to be better corporate citizens, and some in the press and public believing.
There is no real downside for the networks with the ratings system. To look as if they are giving something up, they say that rating a program as violent can cost up to $1 million per episode in advertising pullout. The networks cite figures from the first season of ABC's "NYPD Blue" to support that claim, but no one in the press has independently substantiated those figures.
Betsy Frank, media buyer for Zenith Media Services, counters network claims of how expensive a ratings system will be in terms of lost advertising, saying, "We do a very good job of pre-screening every episode of every program that our clients buy. Since we know our clients' guidelines, we know the kind of environment they want and the kind they don't want. So, I really don't believe violence ratings will make that big a difference."
Meanwhile, Reed Hundt, Mr. Clinton's appointed chairman of the FCC, is already greasing the skids for the ratings deal to be finalized next week at the White House in such a way that it will give the networks more than enough time to work out the details and ride out the election-year rhetoric.
"We should give broadcasters plenty of room to invent their own advisories and think through these problems today, tomorrow and over the next weeks and months," Mr. Hundt says, explaining how pleased he is with the Fox announcement and the talks among ABC, NBC and CBS.
"In a public relations sense, it's the perfect solution for all parties involved," says Dr. Gomery. "You can almost see the Page 1 picture now of the President and the network chiefs all shaking hands next week. And, then, it will all go away for a while. And V-chips will be in all the television sets in 10 years, and no one will even remember why."