Politically Determined Entertainment Ratings and How to Avoid Them

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When they select video games, comic books, movies, music, radio programs, and television shows for their children to experience, parents have a wealth of information available to them. Through government content codes, private ratings systems, and a variety of other measures, parents have a broad universe of choices between ratings systems. This paper explores the nature of ratings systems for movies, comic books, television, radio, and video games.

We find that, while no media ratings system can or will ever achieve perfection, the best rating systems have three attributes: They attempt to describe, rather than prescribe, what entertainment media should contain; they are particularly suited to their particular media forms; and they were created with little or no direct input from government. We also find that ratings systems collapse, it simply results in the creation of better ratings systems.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board system for evaluating computer games works better than most. It consists of five basic ratings ranging from Early Childhood—largely educational programs for kindergarteners—to Adults Only games with serious violent or sexual content. Descriptive, easy-to-understand phrases—from “comic mischief” to “strong sexual content”—accompany the ratings. Parents can tell, at a glance, exactly what they might find objectionable in a video game. Congress has held hearings on the video game industry and threatened to regulate content, but the system emerged almost entirely as a result of voluntary private action, and has worked well for parents, children, and software producers.

On the other hand, in the radio market, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposes vague but sweeping content guidelines over almost all broadcasts. The threat of FCC-imposed fines has done nothing to give parents greater control over their children’s radio listening habits—they have virtually no way to protect their children from adult material like explicitly sexual “shock jocks” and violent hip-hop lyrics. Heavy regulation and the absence of a private ratings system have made radio worse for parenting.

Comic books publishers long subjected themselves to an industry “code” that specified exactly what they could and could not publish. While officially a voluntary industry standard, the comics code came into existence following a series of hearings that made it clear that Congress would impose a code if the industry did not write one. The resulting code became so incredibly specific that it once forbade comics from featuring werewolves, vampires, and zombies. The Comics Code collapsed during the 1990s as a relic of a more prudish era, but the two largest comics publishers, Marvel and D.C., adopted informative, multi-tiered ratings systems, on their own, that provide parents more information about content than the Comics Code ever did.

Radio content regulation and the Comics Code fail because they provide very little information—none at all in the case of radio—and attempt to set particular limits over media that, by their very nature, should facilitate a wide range of different types of experiences for a wide range of different types of audiences. Neither takes the nature of the medium into account.

To work, however, industry ratings systems do not always need the complexity that characterizes the video game system. The music industry’s Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics sticker and similar “Explicit” warnings on Internet music downloads are good examples of a simple rating system that works well. Because songs tend to be short, and artists’ bodies of work easy to investigate, parents can often simply listen to songs themselves if they have any concerns. While the system is simple, it works pretty well. And it originated largely as a result of voluntary industry action.

Ultimately, ratings systems cannot influence the content of what gets produced in the long run. Even the highly prescriptive Comics Code did nothing to stop the emergence of graphic novels with adult themes and situations. Those who want to “clean up” media without unconstitutional government censorship will likely do best to simply avoid buying cultural products they dislike.

Well thought-out ratings systems, particularly those shaped through market forces rather than government mandates, can prove a valuable tool for parents, but they are just that—tools. No ratings system can replace good parenting.