As parents became more concerned about the content of rapidly multiplying TV shows, they demanded help from the TV industry to monitor that content.

As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress asked the TV industry to implement a voluntary ratings system. The industry responded by developing TV Parental Guidelines—a ratings system that labels each show (excluding news and sports) with its content and perceived age-appropriateness.

The organizations responsible for developing the ratings system were the National Association of Broadcasters, National Cable Television Association and Motion Picture Association of America. The TV ratings system was actually modeled after the MPAA’s movie ratings system, implemented in 1968.

The ratings may be used in conjunction with the V-chip—a device placed in most televisions starting in late 1999 by mandate of the Federal Communications Commission. The V-chip electronically determines a program’s rating and therefore allows parents to block or allow programs based on their rating or content labels.

A 2001 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 40 percent of American parents then owned a television with a V-chip, but only 17 percent of those parents used it to regulate viewing. However, 56 percent of American parents reported using TV ratings to determine what their children would watch.

A monitoring board oversees the ratings process. The board consists of 24 people: a chairperson, six members from broadcast television, six members from cable television, six members from program production, and five members from the advocacy community. The board reviews programs whose ratings may have been inaccurate and tries to ensure uniformity of ratings.

Programs are actually voluntarily rated by the broadcast and cable TV networks. A program is rated episode by episode and may therefore carry different ratings. For example, “Everybody Loves Raymond” hasn’t received a blanket rating; one episode may be rated TV-G, while another may be TV-PG.

There are seven different ratings:

  • TV-Y: For all children (with themes particularly appropriate for children aged 2-6)
  • TV-Y7: Directed to older children (7 and older)
  • TV-Y7FV: Also directed to older children, but with a mix of “fantasy violence” absent from the previous category
  • TV-G: For general audiences
  • TV-PG: Parental guidance suggested (may contain violence, sex, coarse language or suggestive dialogue)
  • TV-14: Parents strongly cautioned (probably inappropriate for children under 14)
  • TV-MA: For mature audiences (unsuitable for children under 17)

The last three categories of ratings may also carry “content labels” as part of the rating. That is, in addition to carrying the TV-14 rating, for example, a program rating may also carry “V” for violence, “S” for sexual situations, “L” for coarse language or “D” for suggestive dialogue.

TV ratings “are designed to be simple to use, easy to understand and handy to find,” reads the TV ratings Web site. However, Kaiser’s 2001 survey found some confusion among parents about the TV ratings, particularly those ratings reflecting content suitable for children.

TV ratings appear in several places: in the upper-left corner of the screen during a show’s first 15 seconds; TV Guide; on-screen cable program guides; and some newspapers carry the ratings in their TV listings.

The ratings don’t apply to promotional spots, though promos for single shows will sometimes carry the rating for the show itself.

Ratings don’t apply to advertisements either, though some parents see advertisements as increasingly racy and problematic because they can appear in an otherwise neutral program, like a sports broadcast.

The monitoring board invites comments and feedback from the public.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

Visit the TV Parental Guidelines Web site.

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