WASHINGTON -- The most powerful executives in the television industry promised President Clinton yesterday to start rating programs by January 1997, so parents can use new technology to block out shows they don't want their children to see.
But while the president hailed the pledge as a "historic turning point," industry analysts said that the ratings system described yesterday would accomplish little more than getting politicians off the networks' backs during an election year.
"I'm pleased to report on a breakthrough voluntary agreement to help parents protect their children from violence and objectionable adult content on television," Mr. Clinton said after a two-hour meeting with about 30 network executives.
"The media and entertainment industry has agreed to a voluntary system of ratings for television programs," he continued. "These ratings will help parents decide what programs they want their children to watch."
The ratings are essential to the recently passed Telecommunications Act, which requires that beginning in 1998 all new TV sets be equipped with the V-chip, a device that would allow parents to control their children's viewing by blocking out shows.
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and Hollywood's point man at yesterday summit, acknowledged that details of the proposal were sketchy at best.
"Will it be like the motion picture ratings system? I don't know. I don't want to just duplicate that system, but maybe that will be the way to go." he said at a White House news conference with Mr. Clinton. "Will it be a letter system or numerical? Again, I don't know. This is an awesome task, coming up with a system that works, and we have only started thinking about it."
For example, Mr. Valenti said he did not know whether only entertainment shows or all shows -- including news and sports -- should be rated.
"Probably news will be exempted from this," said Ted Turner, chief executive officer of Turner Entertainment. "But there are a lot of us in this room who think local news on television is not really news -- it's more one murder after another -- and that it ought to be dealt with at some point, too. Although it would be almost impossible to rate news. But you see how complicated this is."
Mr. Valenti said that ratings will be determined by the "party responsible for bringing a show into a viewer's home." In most cases, that means networks will decide if a show should be rated as violent or salacious.
That is essentially the same situation networks created with their self-imposed system of parental advisories two seasons ago -- a system that is still in place, although few shows carry the advisory.
George Gerbner, dean emeritus and professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, called yesterday's agreement "a delaying tactic that's intended to alleviate the pressure from Congress and the American public."
He noted that two years ago, when TV violence was a hot topic in Congress, the networks volunteered to use parental advisories. Then, when the heat died down, the networks announced that they had not found any programs violent enough to merit an advisory.
"There is no reason to expect the networks will do any better with this system if it is all under their control," Dr. Gerbner said.
Douglas Gomery, a University of Maryland professor who has written several books on film and television, pointed out that it was Mr. Valenti who crafted the motion picture ratings system when Hollywood was under fire in 1968 for sexual content and language.
"It's always the same," Dr. Gomery said. "They get into some kind of trouble in Hollywood, and then they rally around industry self-regulation. In a public relations sense, it's the perfect solution. In terms of effective reform, you have 27 years of the motion picture ratings system for historical precedent." Mr. Valenti sought to address those concerns yesterday by pointing out that a system will be created for reviewing ratings -- although he acknowledged that those doing the reviews will only come from the television industry.
While Mr. Valenti and Mr. Clinton emphasized that the proposal was strictly voluntary, Mr. Turner and Robert C. Wright, president and chief executive officer of NBC, suggested otherwise after the news conference.
They were asked why the television industry -- a sprawling enterprise that includes production companies, syndicators, owners of independent stations, cable operators and networks -- suddenly came together.
"When we looked at how the V-chip vote went, over 95 percent of our members of Congress voting for it, we got the message," Mr. Turner replied.
Mr. Wright said it was a combination of the Telecommunications Act, the pounding Hollywood is taking on the campaign trail and polls showing that complaints about sex and violence on TV are resonating with viewers.
Mr. Turner said the only way the industry would come up with a manageable system is if everyone works together. But, while they spoke with one voice at the White House, network executives were soon contradicting one another about yesterday's action.
Mr. Turner said it will mean huge advertising losses and less innovative programs. But Robert Iger, president of Capital Cities/ABC, disagreed. "I don't see that this system is going to change scheduling or standards at all," he said.