DOSSIER D.C. : Moral Prescriptions

Congress adds sex, language and violence to the TV ratings systemthe first rule of political survival: never underestimate your opponent. The TV industry is now taking this lesson to heart. For most of this year, however, it woefully misjudged congressional interest in programming content. And the industry has paid for its indifference. The TV ratings imbroglio possesses more media stamina and political stealth than the campaign-finance scandals.
No surprise then that the strangest agreement of 1997 is the recent one between television’s power players and Congress: Representatives have supported a cease-fire on TV content legislation as long as the industry adds indicators of sex, language and violence (S, L and V) to its age-based system. It has. Say hello to a new TV ratings system just been filed with the Federal Communications Commission. The new system includes TV-Y, TV-Y7 (appropriate for children under 7) and TV-Y7-FV (programs with fantasy violence).
For adult audiences, the new ratings are TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 and TV-MA; each of these will include the more sophisticated diagnostics of S, L and V.
New terms, such as FV for fantasy violence, may give some advertisers pause, while those trying to insinuate their spokescharacters into children’s programming may reconsider which cartoons they target.
“Ratings are not a magic tool for parents or advertisers,” admits Dan Jaffe, executive vice president for the Association of National Advertisers. “They both have to decide what it means for them.”
Not everyone is happy with, or will abide by, the new ratings system. A few members of Congress who have vowed to push for legislation that would secure “better television” strongly disagree with the cease-fire agreement. Sen. Ernest Hollings, creator of the famed Safe Harbor bill, is quiet for the moment, but there are no guarantees that more TV legislation won’t be introduced.
What is the networks’ response? NBC is a lone wolf, stating the network won’t be coerced into participating in the new system. In fact, First Amendment maven Nat Hentoff devoted a recent column to NBC’s lonesome position. When Vice President Gore talks about “taking back our living rooms,” Hentoff bristles. “The only invaders my wife, I and our children have repelled from our living room are politicians and apparatchiks who have tried to tell us what we could not see or hear,” Hentoff writes.
Much like NBC, Hentoff believes that Congress’ real goal is to dictate programming. “This is not censorship to me,” says David Moulton, press secretary for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the architects of the agreement. “The genius of these ratings, which will be useful for the V-chip, is that government plays no role whatsoever. The parent blocks out what he wants. Believe me, if this was censorship, there’d be a lawsuit by now.”
Of course, there are no V-chips yet. The first chip will be available by the end of this year for about $50. The earliest any parent can get a V-chip in a new TV will be Christmas 1998.
At that time, you’ll be able to block programs by how much sex, profane language or violence they contain, if you block according to the ratings system. But it’s not as simple as Congress would like you to think. For example, if you want to watch NYPD Blue, and it’s rated TV-MA-S,L,V, but you want to block the daytime soaps, you’ll have to block and unblock your set each time NYPD Blue airs.
Turning off the TV-and enforcing it-may look better and better. While some claim that’s a crude way to block programming, it may work for many people inching their way to the millennium with instructions to their V-chips in hand.
Still, the question remains: Do America’s parents really care about or want a ratings system? Will they really use the V-chip?
The TV industry abandoned the idea of polling the heartland when congressional heat became unbearable. While many in Congress say their constituents are desperately seeking guidance in this area, others aren’t so sure.
“We don’t think the average parent cares about these ratings. It’s just not of concern to them,” says Barbara Dixon, spokesperson for the American Motion Picture Association of America, who is one of the industry’s architects of both ratings systems.
On Oct. 1, viewers can decide for themselves how the new ratings systems jibes with their respective moral concerns and TV tastes. And if you are a parent, you’ll get the chance next year to show that you’re better at blocking the detritus on television than you are at using the block on America Online or programming your VCR.
What about blocking out those pesky alcohol ads? Rep. Markey’s office said he won’t support that movement. “Markey defends free over-the-air TV,” says Moulton. “He views a V-chip for ads as a direct hit to broadcasters.”
News and Notes-After two years of waiting on the part of the ad industry, the Food and Drug Administration is going to offer some help to direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertisers that are anxious to promote their products on television.
The FDA told Adweek that the agency is very close to offering some guidelines that will help advertisers avoid the brief summary rule, an opus of consumer information and contraindications in broadcast advertising.
If the rules are as helpful as the FDA promises, the government will have made a huge impact on this exploding advertising category, which is projected to spend $1 billion in 1998. Moreover, if the regulations are at all relaxed, it will be a gift advertisers have been waiting for since the FDA held hearings two years ago.
Recent issues of Entertainment Weekly and Men’s Health have carried a prototype of new print ads for prescription drugs. For instance, a splashy three-page ad for Prozac by Leo Burnett, Chicago, begins with one black page with the headline “Depression Hurts.”
A second, sunny, sky-blue page uses the headline “Prozac can help.” The third page, which carries fine print for the Eli Lilly company, offers a deluge of information dubbed “brief summary.” Why the quotes? That’s one requirement of the brief summary rule which may not change for print advertisers. (It may be that only broadcast ads are excused from the brief summary rule.)
“Our thrust from the start was directed toward sufferers,” says Mary Bishop, executive vice president in charge of the healthcare division at Burnett, about the Prozac ads.
“Only one-third of the 17 million adults with depression are seeing a physician. We want to get this in the hands of the underdiagnosed and the undiagnosed.” Would Leo Burnett consider broadcast ads if the regulations are manageable?
That’s confidential, says Bishop. Still, she notes that Burnett, as well as most advertisers, is happy about “anything that can make advertising easier to understand.”