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Television Programs Divided Into 6 Ambiguous Categories

By Paul Farhi
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Television industry executives are planning to use six broad categories to rate entertainment programs, ranging from "TV-G" for shows suitable for all audiences to "TV-M" for those intended only for mature viewers, according to the group's internal documents.

Executives involved in developing the ratings said Monday that an industry group is likely to adopt the system by next week. The ratings are to go into effect in January. The group is moving ahead despite continuing criticism from parents' groups and some elected officials that the proposed system will be too vague to offer parents much guidance about the actual content of TV programs. In addition, several of the proposed categories appear to overlap, blurring the distinctions among them.

Critics contend that parents will be unable to find specifics in the system, since the categories do not explicitly flag excessive violence, sexual situations or rough language in a program. And, they say, one category appears so broad that it is likely to account for nearly all prime-time programming.

According to the group's documents, programs for children will bear one of two ratings: either "TV-K" - suitable for all children - or "TV-K7," for children over 7. Programs for general audiences will be rated in one of four categories:

-TV-G. General audiences. In their current form, the group's guidelines - which viewers will not see with the rating - indicate that a program would be rated in this category if "most parents would find this program suitable for all ages it contains little or no violence, little or no strong language and little or no sexual content."

The only clear distinction between TV-G programs and TV-K shows is that the latter are created specifically created for children.

-TV-PG. Parental guidance suggested. "This program may contain some material that some parents would find unsuitable for younger children. Many parents may want to co-view it with their younger children," according to the guidelines. "The program may contain infrequent coarse language, limited violence, some suggestive sexual dialogue, and situations." Most prime-time sitcoms will likely fall into this category, several panel members said.

-TV-14. Parents strongly cautioned. Programs in this category "may contain some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age," such as "sophisticated themes, strong language, more intense violence, and sexual content." Industry sources said programs such as Fox's "The X-Files" and "Millennium" and ABC's "NYPD Blue" would likely be rated in this category.

-TV-M. Mature audiences only. The guidelines say this type of program is "unsuitable" and "too explicit" for children under 17 because of "mature themes, profane language, graphic violence, and explicit sexual content." Executives said only a few programs, mainly those aired late at night on pay-cable channels like HBO, would be placed in this category.

A member of the ratings development group, which includes executives of the broadcast, cable and TV production companies, said Monday that there was wide internal support for the broad categories.

He said the underlying descriptions of the categories may be "fine-tuned" in the next few days, though he added, "I don't think there are any substantial changes left."

But Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), argued that the proposed categories are more likely to confuse parents than to warn them about questionable content.

"Using six categories gives the illusion of precision," said Markey, the co-author of a federal law that compelled the industry to develop the ratings. "The reality is the majority of programming is likely to fall into the TV-PG rating. This is a vast, undifferentiated category that doesn't tell parents whether a program was rated that way for violence or sex or language. TV-PG really stands for Too Vague - Parents Give Up.' "

The ratings themselves will be determined by the TV networks and syndicators that originate shows, unlike the well-known movie rating system on which the TV ratings are based. Movies are rated by an ostensibly independent board of parents, under the direction of the Motion Picture Association of America.

The proposed TV rating system "provides even less information" than its movie counterpart because of the broadness of the categories, said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education.