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POOR RATINGS : MOST TELEVISION VIEWERS KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT THE SHOWS THEY CHOOSE TO WATCH.

Byline: Nick Gillespie

AMERICA'S seemingly interminable national soap opera about the urgent need to ``clean up'' TV has entered its final, absurdist episode.

The pressure is on to make the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers settle disputes with their heads rather than their hands, to make Dennis Franz of ``NYPD Blue'' keep his clothes on, and to make Beavis and Butt-head stop playing with matches.

While the actual program categories proposed by the television industry may change, it is absolutely clear that, in one form or another, ``voluntary'' TV ratings are here to stay.

After all, they are mandated by the same federal legislation that will bring v-chips to new television sets beginning in 1998.

It is similarly clear that the camera-hogging politicians, outraged children's advocacy groups and tongue-clucking editorial writers who have championed government regulation of television feel that viewers are tasteless boobs desperately in need of the expert guidance only they can provide.

Such thinking explains the chorus of boos that greeted the television industry's new age-based rating system.

Using the Motion Picture Association of America's movie ratings as a guide, an industry commission led by MPAA head Jack Valenti created the following categories.

There are six in all: TV-Y (fare appropriate for all children), TV-7 (unsuitable for kids under 7), TV-G (general audiences), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14) and TV-M (mature audiences only).

Broadcast and cable networks will be responsible for rating whatever they choose to disseminate, with only news and sports programming exempted.

These ratings will be used in conjunction with the v-chip when it becomes commercially available.

Critics claim that an age-based system, rather than a content-based one explicitly rating shows on sex, violence and language, is devoid of the truly meaningful information that best enables viewers to bypass shows sight unseen.

Hence Rep. James Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, rips the ratings as ``a toothless system that tells parents nothing about whether a show contains violence, sexual content or profanity.''

Opines USA Today, ``The industry plan . . . offers even less information than cable programmers such as HBO and Showtime already provide.''

``There's no reason why this information can't be made available - it's basically just an unwillingness on the part of the TV industry to do so,'' declares Tim Collings of Canada's Simon Fraser University and creator of the v-chip.

(Ironically, Canada's own content-based system, hailed as a model by some in the United States, has been pulled as unworkable and unreliable in rating the 600,000 or so programs Hollywood produces in a given year.)

The charge that TV shows are unknown quantities rings as true as the dialogue on ``Baywatch.''

Widely promoted in print and on screen, and summarized routinely in daily listings, television programs are probably the most honestly and openly advertised commodity in the American marketplace.

No one tunes to ``Family Matters'' and expects a panel discussion about kinship relations (for those who do, the theme song should clear up any confusion).

Viewers are not surprised when the fighting starts on ``Walker, Texas Ranger'' (Chuck Norris' reputation as a karate champ and action star precedes himself).

The Three Stooges did not suddenly turn to violence in the 1990s (the same goes for Bugs Bunny, the Little Rascals and Popeye the Sailor Man).

If anything, TV programs suffer from a complete lack of mystery. They draw audiences by delivering what viewers expect and demand, not by fooling or hoodwinking them. ``Unsolved Mysteries'' is, in the end, absolutely predictable.

To suggest that TV viewers really need more information about the shows they choose to watch is really to attack the choices themselves.

Such misdirection is absolutely of a piece with a crusade that has consistently spoken in an Orwellian dialect.

The language games go beyond substituting ``voluntary'' for ``mandatory.'' They extend to the basic fact that the link between watching television and engaging in violent or sexual behavior is far from clear.

Indeed, the authors of ``The UCLA Violence Monitoring Report'' and ``The National Television Violence Study'' readily acknowledge the point. (These are government-initiated ``voluntary'' tallies of prime-time programming, and both are widely cited as proving the need for regulation.)

Such misdirection extends to the ultimate goal of the crusaders. Far from being dedicated to the proper labeling of TV violence, sexual situations and adult language, they want to change the sorts of things that get broadcast.

And they are absolutely committed to using government muscle, rather than market forces or moral suasion, to get their way.

Occasionally, people such as Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota and sponsor of the Senate's v-chip bill, admit this.

As Attorney General Janet Reno bluntly put it in 1993, if the entertainment business didn't reduce the violence on TV - ``voluntarily,'' of course - ``government action will be imperative.''

Overall, though, moments of clarity are rare in the effort to make the small screen safe as milk.

Instead, we are treated to a relentless rage for ``information'' that, in seeking to overturn age-based ratings, treats us all as children.

And the TV crusaders, in turn, fill the role of stern parents bellowing orders at truculent teen-agers refusing to do as they are told.

In life, of course, children eventually leave their parents and live, for better or worse, by their own wits. If the crusaders get their way, however, no such plot development will happen in TV land.

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Photo

Photo: Under a television industry ratings system, shows like ``NYPD Blue,'' with Dennis Franz and other cast members who take their clothes off, would be rated TV-M (mature audiences only).
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 30, 1997
Words:930
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