Protecting Children from Harmful Television: TV Ratings and the V-chip

Amy I. Nathanson, PhD
Lecturer, University of California at Santa Barbara

Joanne Cantor, PhD
Professor, Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Much research suggests that television viewing is related to a host of negative outcomes in children. Studies have found that television viewing is associated with aggression, a "desensitization" to violence, and increased fear (Wilson et al., 1997). Given that children's exposure to television is inevitable, parents may wonder what they can do to protect their children from experiencing these and other negative effects. The purpose of this paper is to discuss one option for controlling children's television viewing: the use of television ratings. More specifically, this paper will briefly describe the history and development of television ratings, discuss three of the major problems associated with television ratings, and then finally point out some of the other methods that are available to help parents cope with the presence of television in their children's lives.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 declared that, within two years of its passage, televisions be manufactured with a V-chip. The V-chip will permit parents to block television programs that they feel are objectionable or problematic by working in conjunction with a television rating system. That is, television programs (except news and sports) would receive ratings, and then parents could use these ratings to decide which programs they wanted to block out. It is clear, then, that the effectiveness of the V-chip depends in large part on the utility of a television rating system.

The first system that was unveiled was developed by the entertainment industry. This system, called the "TV Parental Guidelines," went into effect in January of 1997 and was quite familiar. The reason for its immediate familiarity was that the system was based on the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) rating system for movies. The MPAA ratings include the following four ratings: G, PG, PG-13, and R. Similarly, the original TV Parental Guidelines included the following four ratings: TV-G (general audience), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (parents strongly cautioned), and TV-MA (mature audiences only). One difference between the two systems is that the TV Parental Guidelines included a separate, two-level rating system for children's programs: TV-Y (all children) and TV-Y7 (directed to older children).

With the exceptions of the children's rating system, the addition of "TV" before each of the ratings, and a few minor changes in the ratings themselves, the TV Parental Guidelines were virtually identical to the movie ratings. Both the MPAA ratings and the TV Parental Guidelines are "age-based" systems in that they generally recommend or discourage viewing based on how old viewers are. In other words, the rating TV-14 suggests that a program should not be viewed by children who are under the age of 14, while the rating TV-G suggests that a program is suitable for viewers of any age. Neither rating system provides any indication of what kind of material or content is in a given movie or television program or why it might be inappropriate for viewers of a certain age.

Although the intention to create a television rating system was certainly commendable, there were many problems with the system that was developed. The first major problem with the system was that it was not what parents wanted. Numerous national surveys were conducted to assess parents' preferences regarding the television rating system. And, in the majority of the surveys that were conducted, overwhelming support for a content-based rating system as opposed to an age-based system (such as the TV Parental Guidelines) was found.

One such study polled a random national sample of nearly 700 local-unit members of the National Parent Teacher Association (Cantor, Stutman, & Duran, 1996). It is important to note that this survey was conducted before the original TV Parental Guidelines were unveiled, and so parents were asked to report their preferences before having had experienced any one particular television rating system. In this study, members of the National PTA received a brief survey in the mail assessing, among other things, their attitudes and preferences regarding a television rating system. For example, the parents were asked if they would prefer a television rating system that indicated what kind of content was in a program or if they would prefer a system that indicated the age of the child that the program is appropriate for. Their findings revealed that 80% of parents said they would prefer a content-based system over an age-based system, while only 20% said they preferred an age-based system over a content-based system.

Using two other questions, the authors again found that parents overwhelmingly wanted a content-based system. For example, parents were also asked to choose whether they would prefer a television rating system that provided content information or one that provided an evaluation of the program. And, in a third question, parents were asked whether they would prefer a system that provided separate ratings for television content or a system that gave one summary rating. In response, they found that 82% preferred a content-based system over an evaluative-system, and 80% preferred a content-based system over a system that provided one summary rating.

These findings clearly revealed that parents wanted a system that would alert them to potentially problematic content and not one that made evaluations or recommendations for them. This makes sense, for parents certainly know their children the best of anyone, and they may be differentially concerned with different kind of television content depending on the particular child in question (Cantor, Stutman, & Duran, 1996). For example, a parent may feel that he or she has an exceptionally mature 10-year old who could easily cope with hearing bad language or seeing sexual situations on television. However, this parent may be very concerned about the child's reaction to violent television and may want to shield the youngster from programs with violent content. This parent, then, would not want to rely on the industry's age-based recommendations and would probably prefer to know what kind of material is in a certain program and then decide whether it was appropriate for his or her child. Certainly, these parents would not find the age-based TV Parental Guidelines very helpful in monitoring their children's viewing.

The second major problem with the TV Parental Guidelines was that they were not likely to effectively warn parents about what kind of objectionable content (e.g., violence, sex, coarse language) television programs with certain ratings would contain. In other words, the TV Parental Guidelines were not likely to be very informative because the specific ratings would probably not be indicative of any particular kind of television material. These speculations are based on the fact that the rating system that the TV Parental Guidelines were based on--the MPAA rating system--has been shown to be ineffective in clearly communicating what kind of content coincides with particular movie ratings.

For example, in two consecutive years, it was found that the various MPAA ratings bear little relationship with various types of content (Cantor & Harrison, 1996; Cantor, Harrison, & Nathanson, 1997). These data came from content analyses conducted for the first and second years of the National Television Violence Study, a three-year project funded by the National Cable Television Association. The content analyses contained information about whether the movies collected as part of the sample contained an MPAA rating and/or a content rating, such as those provided on the premium cable channels, HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax. If a particular movie contained both kinds of ratings, the data sets indicated which particular MPAA and content ratings it had received. This allowed us to examine the relationship between MPAA ratings and a movie's content, as determined by the premium cable channels.

In both years, no clear pattern between the MPAA ratings and the content codes was found. This was particularly true in the case of PG-rated movies (see Figure 1). For example, in the analysis of the second-year data, we found that 22% of the movies contained a combination of language and violence. In addition, another 22% contained a combination of language and sex. Another 18% contained violence only, and another 15% contained language only. What this reveals is that virtually any kind of content, or combination of content, is likely to appear in a PG-rated movie.

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Figure 1. Distribution of Language, Sex, and Violence Codes in PG-Rated Movies

The fact that the MPAA ratings do not clearly communicate what kind of content will appear in a certain movie is problematic for parents who want to shield their children from specific types of content. And clearly, as the numerous national surveys have shown, most parents do want to know what type of content is contained in a given program. Since the TV Parental Guidelines are based on the MPAA rating system, we should only expect the television ratings to be just as uninformative as the movie ratings.

In fact, there is some recent evidence that the TV Parental Guidelines provide little information about what kind of content is contained in television programs. In an analysis of the third year of content analysis data collected for the National Television Violence Study, Cantor and Nathanson (1998) were able to provide the first comparison of the TV Parental Guidelines and television program content. In this analysis, the authors compared the presence of the various TV Parental Guidelines with the presence of violence in the programs. The presence of violence was determined by coders who had watched all of the programs analyzed in the data and used specific criteria to identify the presence of violence. Cantor and Nathanson found that, for programming directed at general audiences, the TV Parental Guidelines provided no indication of the presence of violence. That is, programs rated TV-PG were equally likely to contain violence as programs rated TV-14. Another way of saying this is that a parent who wants to shield his or her child from televised violence is no better off selecting programs rated TV-PG than selecting programs rated TV-14. Hence, the analyses of the movies seemed to accurately predict the uninformativeness of the TV Parental Guidelines regarding their ability to communicate the kind of content that is associated with various ratings.

The third major problem with the TV Parental Guidelines was that it was likely to attract children to the very content that parents want to shield them from. In other words, it is likely that a child who sees a program that is rated TV-14 will be more interested in seeing the program--simply because of its restrictive rating--than a program that is rated TV-G. These speculations are based on two years of research conducted for the National Television Violence Study (Cantor & Harrison, 1996; Cantor et al., 1997). Although the procedures and methods differed somewhat across the two years, the studies were quite similar and produced very similar results. For simplicity's sake, the more recent research will be presented.

Cantor et al. (1997) conducted an experiment with children in Milwaukee who ranged in age from 5 to 15. All of the children in the experiment received booklets that were designed to resemble a TV Guide. More specifically, the booklets contained the titles of fictional movies and descriptions of their major story lines. All of the children read the same titles and descriptions; however, one group of children was told that one of the movies they read about was rated G, another group of children was told that the same movie was rated PG, another group was told it was rated PG-13, another group was told it was rated R, and finally, the fifth group did not receive any information about the program's rating.

The children were asked to read the titles and descriptions (the younger children, who may have had difficulty reading, had adult research assistants read the titles and descriptions to them) and then rate how much they wanted to see each movie on a scale from 1, meaning they would "hate to see it" to 5, meaning they would "love to see it." The children were told that these ratings would constitute "votes," and that they would get to see the movie that received the most votes.

For the movie associated with the various MPAA ratings, we found a strong effect of the ratings on children's interest in the movie. We found that older children (ages 10-15) were most interested in the movie when they thought it was rated either PG-13 or R. However, interest was lowest when older children believed the movie was rated G (see Figure 2). In addition, we found that aggressive younger children and younger children who were heavy viewers of television were also most interested in the movie when it was associated with a more restrictive movie rating. Clearly, then, the age-based MPAA ratings made restricted movies more interesting to children, while movies deemed appropriate for children (e.g., movies rated G) became less interesting.

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Figure 2. Effect of MPAA Ratings on Older Children's Interest in a Movie

To understand whether any kind of rating system would have the same effect on children , we also compared the effect of a content-based rating system on children's interest in movies. One of the other movies described in the children's booklets was randomly associated with a violence designation in a manner consistent with how the various premium channels display ratings. That is, all of the children read the same title and movie description; however, one group of children was led to believe that the program was rated "V: Violence," another group believed it was rated "MV: Mild Violence," another group believed it was rated "GV: Graphic Violence," and a fourth group believed the movie had no rating.

In contrast to the effects observed with the MPAA ratings, we found that the content indicators had no effect on children's interest in viewing the movie. In fact, younger children tended to shy away from the movie when they believed it contained various levels of violence. Hence, it does not appear that every rating system will necessarily attract children to restricted or objectionable content. However, it does seem that the age-based MPAA ratings entice children to the content parents want to protect them from. By extension, we should expect that the TV Parental Guidelines, because they are so similar to the MPAA ratings, will also attract children to restricted content.

One possible explanation for why these different effects were observed for the two rating systems is that the age-based MPAA system increases children's curiosity in a movie by failing to indicate what is objectionable about the content and simply forbidding children of a certain age from seeing it. The content-based system, on the other hand, does not make any recommendations about who should or should not see the movie; it simply describes its contents. Children may be less allured by simple content information, but may wish to defy restrictions placed on them by seeking out the content that is forbidden and seeing for themselves why it is considered objectionable.

Hence, the original TV Parental Guidelines were problematic for three primary reasons: they did not reflect the kind of television rating system that parents wanted, they were not likely to (and, in the case of violent content, they did not) clearly communicate the kind of content that programs contain, and they were likely to attract children to problematic content rather than repel them. Given these problems, it is likely that parents are still wondering what it is that they can do to protect their children from television they consider to be harmful.

Fortunately, however, the TV Parental Guidelines were revised. Because of the intense criticism that the system received, the industry (with the exception of NBC) agreed to modify the existing system to include ratings that would indicate what kind of content appears in programs. Thus, the letters V, S, L, and D were added to indicate the presence of violence, sex, language, and suggestive dialogue, respectively. The letters "FV" (indicating "fantasy violence") were added to the children's ratings to indicate the presence of "more intense" violence in children's programs. The revised TV Parental Guidelines went into effect in October of 1997.

However, the revisions to the system did not eliminate the age-based component. Instead, content indicators were simply added to the age-based ratings to communicate why a certain program received the rating that it did. Thus, programs now receive ratings such as TV-PG-L, or TV-14-V, and TV-MA-S. And, depending on what age-based rating a program receives, a parent can determine the level of violence, sex, and language that it contains. For example, a program rated TV-PG-V indicates that the program has "moderate violence," a program rated TV-14-V indicates that the program has "intense violence," and a program rated TV-MA-V suggests that the program has "graphic violence."

Unfortunately, this system is rather confusing. Moreover, there is very little information readily available that describes what the content letters mean and how they work in conjunction with age-based ratings. For example, one little known component of the revised TV Parental Guidelines is that programs that have different kinds of contents appearing at different levels of intensity will not receive a rating that reflects the diversity of its content. That is, if a program has strong coarse language (and therefore deserves to be rated TV-14-L) and moderate violence (and therefore deserves a rating of TV-PG-V), only the TV-14-L rating will be displayed. Hence, a parent who wants to shield his or her child from programs with any kind of violence, regardless of how frequently or intensely it occurs, will find the revised TV Parental Guidelines misleading. Therefore, although the revised ratings are certainly a step in the right direction, they are still plagued by many problems.

Fortunately, parents need not rely on the television ratings to block out certain programs. Thanks to new technologies, parents will be able to purchase set-top boxes and some new TV sets that will permit them to block unrated programs or to block by channel and/or by the time a program is aired (Cantor, 1998). Thus, even with a problematic rating system, parents may exert some control over what enters their homes.

Theoretically speaking, then, the television ratings provide one way for parents to protect their children from witnessing what parents judge to be potentially harmful television. In practice, however, it seems that effectively using the currently-existing television rating system is a considerable challenge. Hopefully, with the continued development of technology, more methods will emerge that will help parents gain the control that they desire over the television content that enters their homes.


Cantor, J. (1998). "Mommy, I'm scared": How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Cantor, J., & Harrison, K. (1996). Ratings and advisories for television programming. In National Television Violence Study, Volume 1 (pp. 361-410). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cantor, J., & Nathanson, A. (1998). Ratings and advisories for television programming. In Center for Communication and Social Policy (Ed.), National Television Violence Study, Vol. 3 (pp. 285-321). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cantor, J., Harrison, K., & Nathanson, A. (1997). Ratings and advisories for television programming. In Center for Communication and Social Policy (Ed.), National Television Violence Study, Volume 2 (pp. 267-322). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cantor, J., Stutman, S., & Duran, V. (1996, November). What parents want in a television rating system: Results from a national survey. Report released by the National PTA, the Institute for Mental Health Initiatives, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Available at

Wilson, B.J., Kunkel, D., Linz, D., Potter, J., Donnerstein, E., Smith, S.L., Blumenthal, E., & Berry, M. (1997). Violence in television programming overall. In Center for Communication and Social Policy (Ed.), National Television Violence Study, Volume 2 (pp. 3-204). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Copyright © 1998 Amy I. Nathanson and Joanne Cantor.

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