TV Parental Guidelines recommended for streaming services

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic started, “Tiger King” became the prime topic of conversations around virtual water coolers.

By the end of the year, the British costume drama “Bridgerton” was all the rage. As the leaves turned color this autumn, the Korean drama “Squid Game” captivated viewers’ attention.

Each show had its problematic elements. “Tiger King ” featured continuous allegations of murder and of animal mistreatment. “Bridgerton” loaded up on corset-less sex. “Squid Game” was so slathered with violence, articles were written about how to watch it even if you’re queasy about seeing violent content.

All of these programs were shown on Netflix, the nation’s top video streaming service. But Netflix is hardly alone in showing material parents would find questionable.

This spring, Amazon Prime unveiled “The Underground Railroad,” which showed nearly unremitting violence against enslaved Blacks. Apple TV+ brought back for a second season “The Morning Show,” which deals with all manner of offscreen sexual trysts at a fictional network-TV morning show — with plenty of salty language. Hulu keeps rolling out new seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian series of a United States that forces women to give birth.

There was, for a limited time, a filmed presentation of the stage musical “Hamilton” on Disney+, but while some may not like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s politics, it didn’t take on the overtones of “Hair” or “Oh, Calcutta.”

So, shouldn’t streaming services adopt the same TV Parental Guidelines adopted by over-the-air TV networks and cable channels throughout the United States? The answer is yes — and that answer comes from the industry itself.

The TV Parental Guidelines Board, in late September, issued new “best practice” guidelines for streaming services focused on how they can and should adopt age-based ratings and applicable descriptors.

Ratings should be displayed on-screen at the time a consumer accesses the online video and should, at a minimum, “strive to replicate” TV’s age-based ratings with descriptors, the board said, adding that unless the content has been edited, any off-TV online video should apply the same rating as its TV airing.

The board recommended that U.S. streaming services adopt the age-based TV ratings for online video assets that were shown on television, with ratings and for all movies and episodes of programs “originally produced for the streaming environment,” with the only exceptions being for live news and sports.

The TV Parental Guidelines have been a staple of the TV experience since the V-chip installed on TV sets made parental blocking of programs possible. Shown in the upper-left corner of the screen at the beginning of each show — and, increasingly, when it returns from commercial breaks — is a rating: There are four basic age groups: youth, ages 7 and up, ages 14 and up, and mature audience.

Separate sub-ratings denoting the presence of problematic dialogue, language, sexuality and violence, each of which get more explicit for each age group, also can be found in the guidelines.

It’s an imperfect system. Movie ratings are conferred by the Motion Picture Association, and there have long been battles about what gets cut and what stays in a film to qualify for a certain rating. But with the proliferation of TV content — one count in the 2010s that estimated there were 400 scripted series on the tube has likely been eclipsed given the presence of streaming services — the networks self-rate their own programming, unless the production house already does it for them. This, too, has led to complaints.

“These guidelines are a small step forward to resolve widespread inconsistencies in how programs are rated on streaming platforms,” said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, after the board issued its recommendations.

Winter told Broadcasting & Cable magazine that the next steps are ensuring that the ratings are “are accurately and consistently applied,” which he said the TV ratings have not been, “and that the blocking/parental controls are effective and consistent.”

Britain is considering requiring U.S.-based streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon to adopt England’s own rating system when it brings their content across the Atlantic. On these shores, the Federal Communications Commission does not have authority over streaming services.

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Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.

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When you keep your eye on TV, what do you see? What are your likes or dislikes? What are your concerns and criticisms? Be as general or as specific as you wish. Send your comments to: Mark Pattison, Media Editor, Catholic News Service, 3211 Fourth St. NE, Washington, DC 20017.

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