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Plan for Rating TV Programs Likely To Mirror Age-Based Movie System

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A panel of television-industry executives was nearing completion last week of the details of a new system for rating TV programs, and several news accounts suggested the system would resemble the age-based ratings applied to motion pictures.

"We expect to announce the final plan sometime between now and the first of the year, to become effective January 1," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group based in Washington.

But Mr. Wharton and other industry officials denied a report by The Washington Post that a tentative agreement had already been reached, and declined to provide specific details of the rating system.

"There is no tentative agreement," said Phuong Huynh, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA's president and chief executive officer, Jack Valenti, heads the industry panel.

The industry volunteered to begin rating television programs in February at a White House meeting prompted by increased public concern about violence and sex on television and threats by Congress to impose a rating system as a way of alerting parents to programming that may be unsuitable for children. (See "Federal File," March 6, 1996.)

The Post, citing unnamed sources, said the panel had decided to rate programs based on the appropriateness for viewers of various ages, similar to the familiar letter system for movies.

School Groups' Concerns

The reports distressed some outside groups that have consulted with the panel over the past 10 months. These groups, including the National PTA, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and others, want ratings that describe the content of TV programs and distinguish, for example, between portrayals of violence, rape, sexual scenes, and vulgar language.

A nationwide study of parents released last month by the National PTA found strong support for ratings that tell what is in a program rather than those that say whether certain children should be shielded from seeing it.

Critics of a movie-style system say violence and sex should not be lumped together in a single rating. Research on the effects on children from watching violence on television is extensive and damning, said Dale Kunkle, a professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Everyone agrees there's a social concern [about TV violence]," he said. "There's less consensus about sexually oriented material."

Mr. Kunkle said that though parents are opposed to their children watching violent television programming at any age, their opinions about exposure to sexual scenes vary according to a child's age.

But industry representatives argue that a content-based system would be difficult to administer.

After the news stories appeared last week, the panel held another round of meetings with members of interested groups.

"I was given no indication in an hour and a half of discussion that they're going to do anything other than a movie-type system," said Kathryn Montgomery, the president of the Center for Media Education, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington.

High stakes are involved, because the ratings eventually will be used to activate the so-called "V-chip," which by law must be installed on all new television sets produced beginning in 1998. The chip will allow viewers to block certain programs from appearing.

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