Few inventions have reshaped culture the way television has. Since its mainstream emergence in the 1950s, television has both reflected cultural values and reinforced them, too.
Since 1995, the Parents Television Council has sought to equip parents with information they need to better understand this medium’s influence, especially on children. The PTC has played strong research and advocacy roles as well, looking carefully at the content we’re exposed to on television and encouraging constituents to voice their opinions to the Federal Communications Commission with regard to how broadcast TV is regulated and evaluated.
The Parents Television Council has been a go-to resource for Plugged In for nearly 25 years now. And we recently had a chance to talk with PTC president Tim Winter.
Adam Holz: Thanks for taking time to talk with Plugged In today. Tim, how would you articulate the PTC’s overarching mission?
Winter: We are working to create a safer, healthier entertainment-media environment for children and for families. And we do it through a combination of academic research, public education, grassroots advocacy, and we’re really trying to help channel the voices of millions of Americans who are concerned about the harmful influence that television can have on our children.
And of course, today television means more than just the old tube that sits in the living room for so many families. We’re now talking about other platforms—streaming platforms and so forth. I don’t think ever before in the history of electronic communication has being a parent been so difficult in terms of navigating these choppy media waters. And that’s why we’re here to help parents navigate those media waters.
Holz: Your organization regularly puts out detailed research that evaluates certain content categories on broadcast TV, especially. Tell us about some of your most recent research and some of the conclusions you’ve reached.
Winter: In recent years, we’ve found a couple of very troubling trends. One is that while Hollywood is first to denounce gun violence in our society, [many content producers there] provide dress rehearsals of gun violence every single night on broadcast television and in other media platforms. The Hollywood creative community is swift to denounce gun violence, yet they are profiting millions of dollars every single night by depicting graphic violence, gun violence. Much of it is being marketed to children, and it is providing a desensitization of real-life, tragic gun violence; and using guns as a means of resolving conflicts in real-life situations. So children really are being fed a steady diet of graphic violence, even on shows that are rated as appropriate for children to watch.
Holz: Tim, that brings me to my next question. We might think that the television rating system works just like the movies, that all of the content on these shows is being evaluated by some independent board. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? How does the television rating system actually work?
Winter: The television content-rating system is the most convoluted, self-serving, so-called “protection system” I’ve ever seen in any industry anywhere. … Every parent has turned on the television and seen [a rating] in the top left corner, such as TV-PG, TV-14, TV-G. [These are] things we are familiar with through the Motion Picture Association ratings that you just mentioned. And we think that that rating comes with some credence, some objectivity to it.
What we’ve learned over the years is this: That TV rating is applied by each network. Each TV network decides for itself what to rate that show. There are some guidelines. [But] the oversight of the system is handed to a 24-person body comprised primarily of the very same TV-network executives who rate those shows. There is a financial incentive for them to rate these shows inaccurately, to rate them younger, providing explicit content and rating it as appropriate for children. That’s because many of the television advertisers have corporate policy not to sponsor explicit, mature-rated content.
So the networks will sometimes take violent, sexually explicit and profane material, and rate it as appropriate for children to watch. That way, the advertisers will still come in and pay for it. And then the oversight of that system is handed to the very same executives who rated it wrong to begin with. That’s how upside down the system is. [That’s why] it’s concerning for the Parents Television Council and, consequently, parents across America. This is a rating system that is inaccurate, inconsistent and not at all transparent. And there is no accountability to the public.
Holz: It really seems like a case of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse, doesn’t it?
Winter: I can’t think of a better example than this one!
Holz: Tim, you mentioned the explosion of streaming content. I recently saw an article that said Netflix alone had 800 original TV shows and movies last year. What is the PTC doing to try to keep up with the growing number of platforms and outlets for television content?
Winter: We’re very concerned about some of these new, digital platforms, like Netflix. Many parents look at Netflix as a remedy to get around the cable bundle. They want something that’s family friendly, but they’re forced to subscribe to dozens of channels that can also be very explicit, very violent, profane, sexually explicit, and so forth. So parents think that Netflix might be a better solution for them. They think they can control it easier than the giant cable bundle.
But what we have found is that there is an increasing volume of content that is being produced and distributed originally by Netflix that is being marketed to children, especially teens and preteens. [Some of that content] not only encourages them to kill themselves [such as 13 Reasons Why, which was linked again this week to an upswing in suicides among teens in the months after it originally aired], it is borderline pornographic (and in some cases across that border) that is referred to as “teen television.” And parents need to be on the lookout. … Parents need to beware, and we think Netflix needs to do better.
Holz: Tim, one thing I appreciate about the Parents Television Council is how you encourage people to make their voices heard. We might think that we can’t really influence much when it comes to egregious television content, but we might have more power than we think. What are some of the ways that concerned parents can get involved in this issue?
Winter: It’s interesting how when I travel and speak with parents around the nation, they echo the exact same sentiments: “What can one voice do?” And my response is, “You’d be surprised what one voice can do if it’s at the right place and the right time.” But what the Parents Television Council is trying to do is unify those voices, to bring voices across the nation together in a choir so we can speak loudly.
Just recently, we urged people to file complaints at the FCC. And 1,750 did so within a matter of days. And that will hopefully be enough on the public record at the FCC for them to sit up and take notice and actually do something positive that we’re calling on them to do. Every voice truly matters, and that’s why we’re trying to help shepherd voices from around the nation.
Holz: If somebody comes to visit your website, what are some of the resources that they’re going to find there?
Winter: We want parents to be able to do two things. Number one is to learn: learn about the media choices out there, learn about the scientific research. In fact, that academic and medical research embraces and confirms what most parents know to be true instinctively and intuitively, and that’s that entertainment media can be harmful to children. So we want to be able to provide a resource, Parents TV Council’s own academic research about the content of shows. We want parents to be better equipped to face today’s entertainment media environment and make better choices.
The second thing we want them to be able to do is to speak up, speak out—adding their voice to our choir—and hopefully have an impact. We reach out to the FCC in Washington. We reach out to the Hollywood creative community. More importantly, we even reach out to the Madison Avenue advertising community. We know who advertises on every show. And we want to make sure that those corporations that underwrite explicit content know that they’re going to be held to account publicly for doing so by Americans across the country.
Holz: You know, you mentioned reaching out to the Hollywood community, and I think it’s easy for us to have a sort of stereotype of them in mind as not being interested in these concerns and just preying on people who aren’t paying attention. Do you find any receptiveness among the influencers and the content producers in Hollywood to the kind of messages that you’re really seeking to emphasize?
Winter: Surprisingly, yes, I do. And honestly, many of my conversations are done on a confidential level. We don’t publicize the dialog that we have. But I can assure you that some of the most well-known television producers in Hollywood in recent years have actually taken time to meet with me, to air grievances back and forth, to share thoughts, and we have seen positive consequences. We have seen improvements to content. And for that, we are truly grateful.