Rating ratings

The new TV violence code doesn’t really change anything. Is that why advertisers like it?

Marketing Magazine, October 27, 1997   

The Action Group on Violence on Television — led by Discovery Channel president Trina McQueen— has managed to devise a ratings system for television to make sure our children don’t see anything nasty. And God knows there’s a lot of nasty stuff on television these days. This is the first step to a bright new tomorrow, one in which we’re all nice to each other and nobody thinks anything bad or says anything offensive.


AGVOT shouldn’t be discouraged that its system bears little relation to its counterpart in Quebec; being a distinct society apparently means, along with putting cheese on your French fries, eating white margarine and enjoying the work of Céline Dion, that you can watch sex on television without becoming a rapist. The United States uses another —different — system for classifying television as objectionable. Even though the bulk of our TV programming comes from there, it will be subject to the Canadian ratings. NBC has refused to rate its programming, which makes it seem as though the network is trying to make a mockery of the entire initiative, since this kind of effort has to be unanimous to succeed.


The employees and owners of the National Broadcasting Company don’t seem to realize just how impressionable today’s youngsters are. If kids are allowed to watch anything on television, they will, at the earliest possible opportunity, replicate the misbehavior exactly as they’ve seen it enacted.


This ratings system is just one step in a much longer process. Eventually, all these different ratings systems will be sorted out with the advent of the V-chip, so we’re told. The device will be wired into TV sets any day now, perhaps starting as early as 1999. Of course, in the early field trials of the device, folks in Calgary found the V-chip too confusing and difficult to operate; it was easier to switch it off entirely and keep an eye on what the kids were watching or turn off the television altogether.


But that was only a test. Even if the chip couldn’t tell the difference between shirtless men and women and blocked both equally as “nudity,” I’m sure its Canadian inventor will figure out a way to fix that glitch. Similarly, in those trials, the chip didn’t differentiate between cartoon cats flattened by anvils dropped on them and Arnold Schwarzenegger machine-gunning evil-doers. It blocked both as offensive. Good for the chip. Better safe than sorry. Wouldn’t you rather have your kids watching too little television than too much? That’s what the V-chip is all about.


Advertisers, no fools, back the AGVOT ratings. They’ve also been acquiescent on the prospect of the V-chip. They’ve got their priorities straight. They know that revenue is nothing compared to the goodness and righteousness of an entire generation. Has a single one of them uttered so much as a syllable of complaint that the V-chip may well consign their advertising to some broadcast limbo where it won’t be seen? No, sir. The philosophical question “If an ad fails in a V-chip, does it make a sale?” is entirely moot under the circumstances. And ads won’t be rated. Between the stretches of blank screen while an offensive program is being blocked, the ads will still be there. Kids may not be able to see the exploding cop skulls on Brooklyn South, but that cute Terra Military boots commercial where the guy digs his own grave will still be available . . . although it probably will be tougher for consumers to find it if it appears out of nowhere.


Woe to those who maintain that advertisers would be so cynical that they’d back the ratings hoping that concession might hold off the V-chip, perhaps even kill it entirely. People who make television commercials are just as concerned for the well-being of their kids as anybody else. They know this drive isn’t just a momentary spasm of guilty boomer hysteria like the war on drugs. Just like drugs and sex — which the boomers had to suck up in vast quantities before they knew it was wrong — televised violence is something that the current generation of parents had their own fill of as kids. How else could they know how damaging it is? They don’t want their own kids to lead the pointless, empty lives they’ve consigned themselves to. And people say the current generation of parents are perpetually adolescent hypocrites with no thought for anybody but themselves. Preposterous.


Besides, it’s not like these ratings constitute incipient censorship. News and sports won’t be touched. You’ll still be able to see every frame of pointless Middle East hatred, every demented rampage by a moody loner armed with an assault rifle. And we don’t have to explain why watching hockey players clobbering the bejesus out of each other makes them better viewing than fictional cops fighting bad guys, do we? Of course not.


It’s just that some things need to be monitored. And the ratings have arrived just in time. Any day now, that recent movie version of Romeo and Juliet will be turning up on television. It’s practically kiddie porn, for God’s sake, never mind all the dreadful violence — teenagers getting knifed, run through with swords, shot and God knows what else before the two protagonists finally kill themselves at the end. Definitely 18+.