December 19, 1996 marked the beginning of a new era in American television. On this day, a new TV rating system was unveiled. The system, known as TV Parental Guidelines gave parents a means of sheltering their children from the objectionable content plaguing television programming. The FCC-regulated guidelines are represented by small, rectangular icons which appear for fifteen seconds at the beginning of a program. If the program is longer than an hour, the icon reappears at the beginning of the second hour. Based on the movie rating system, each guideline suggests the degree of maturity required for watching a given program. For instance, a TV14 rating indicates to mothers of seven year olds that they should send the kids to bed. Only sports and news broadcasts are exempt from regulation. In addition to these guidelines, the V-chip (V is for “violence”) was introduced as a way for parents to monitor their children’s viewing habits even more actively. Used in conjunction with parental guidelines, the chip electronically categorizes each show according to its rating. Parents have the option of blocking all programs receiving a rating that they deem inappropriate. Hence, parents can maintain a firm grip on the reins even when the den door is closed. In accordance with the guidelines set forth by the FCC, the chip was installed in all television sets thirteen inches or larger, manufactured after January 1, 2000.

Though the guidelines were not implemented until January 1997, they (and the V-chip) faced opposition from the moment they were proposed. In a December 19, 1996 press release, a wary American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asserted that the V-chip “shuts out families from the process of deciding what television programming is suitable for their children" (a notion that seems contrary to the stated intention of affording parents more control over what their children watch). It appeared to many that the newly-established age-based rating system deprived parents of real insight into the content of a program. Age isn‘t always indicative of maturity level and rating by age group is therefore subjective. To rescue the rating system, a revision of the guidelines was proposed. While the former guideline system was based almost solely on age, this amended classification system allowed parents to determine which content was suitable for their own children (and which material warranted censorship). The following symbols were adopted to supplement the former guidelines.

Content Labels:
  • V - violence
  • S - sexual situations
  • L - coarse, crude, or indecent
  • D - suggestive language/dialogue
  • FV - fantasy violence

This new and improved rating system was instituted on October 1, 1997 by the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association and the Motion Picture Association of America.

The ACLU opposes the role of government in the rating process. Contending that government involvement in a rating system is a “form of censorship clearly forbidden by the First Amendment,” they advocate the emergence of a private rating industry. Privately regulated “lock boxes,” which remain unaffiliated with government agencies, are similar to the V-chip though they block entire channels as opposed to individual programs.

NBC has also challenged the rating system. Their dissatisfaction, however, lies in content-based guidelines. Preferring to use the ratings based on age, they refuse to implement the former ratings system on the grounds that it is impossible to maintain consistency in rating programming on its content. Most importantly, however, the American people have yet to embrace the parental guidelines. A poll conducted by the Associated Press revealed that they disregard the on-screen rating icons.

Though viewed as an affront to civil liberties and the door to a brave new world by its critics, the V-chip offers a helping hand to parents who seek to shield their children from “vulgar” programming.

Note: Parental guidelines may be found in your local newspaper listing, TV Guide, the on-screen display at the beginning of each show, and the on-screen cable program guide.

The World Almanac and Book of Facts: 2002