How Do Movies, TV Shows, Music, and Video Games Get Rated for Content?

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Most parents are concerned with the things their children see and hear in the media. It is an ugly world out there, and while it may be inevitable that they will eventually learn about all of those things, most parents do not want their kids to see graphic violence or mature content or hear offensive language at too your an age.

Fortunately, there are ratings on most movies, television shows, video games, and music albums designed to help parents find material more suitable for their children. However, this raises the question of how this media is rated? Who is doing the rating and how are the levels that are appropriate for different age groups determined?

Many Ratings for Many Types of Media

First, it is important to note that, contrary to the beliefs of many, content rating is not handled by the government. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does have certain decency standards that it will enforce through fines and other penalties, it does not create the ratings or parental warnings seen before movie trailers, at the beginning of TV shows, or on the packages of video games or music albums. These warnings come from within the entertainment industry itself, often to avoid government interference and oversight.

Possibly confusing the matter of age-appropriateness somewhat is the fact that each sector of the entertainment industry is regulated in a different manner and by a different group. Movies are rated by an industry group called the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). TV shows are rated by each network's own censors, video games are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), and music is regulated by the individual labels that distribute the albums.

MPAA Movie Ratings

One of the oldest and most familiar ratings systems is the one created by the MPAA in 1968. The MPAA's ratings arms is called the Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA). CARA is made up of a group of anonymous decision makers, with varying family and professional backgrounds, that watch every movie and make a determination of the ages for which they feel it is most appropriate. They then assign a rating ranging from G to NC-17 to the movie to help audience members determine whether the film's content is right for them and their families.

A G rating stands for “General Audiences,” and means the film contains nothing that should offend parents or children. A PG rating stands for “Parental Guidance,” and is a gentle warning that there may be some content that parents might not want younger kids to see. PG-13 is a stronger caution, warning parents that children under 13 may be too young to deal with some of the content, and strongly advising parents to use their discretion. An “R” rating stands for “Restricted,” and participating movie theaters will not admit children under the age of 17 without a parent or guardian. “R” movies tend to contain more graphic violence, adult situations, and graphic language, and the MPAA's rating is intended to strongly urge parents to avoid bringing children to see this movie given its mature content. Finally, an “NC-17” rating stands for “No Children Under 17,” and is the strongest warning the MPAA currently issues. Participating theaters will not admit anyone under 17, regardless of whether accompanied by a parent or not. These films are considered far too graphic for children and, in fact, may offend some adults, as well.

TV Ratings

In 1996, after the introduction of the V-Chip, a technology designed to block reception of certain material that might be inappropriate for select audiences, the US Congress asked the entertainment industry and the FCC to come up with a voluntary ratings system that would make this technology practical.

The system they came up with is somewhat more elaborate than the one used by the motion picture industry. Ratings can change on a TV series based on the content of each episode, thus one week could be rated with a higher warning level than the next, simply based on what occurs within the episode. Censors at each network are responsible for implementing the ratings, and it applies to all types of programming except news, sports, and commercials.

Television shows are ranked on a scale running from least objectionable for children to most as follows: TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-PG, TV-14, TV-MA. Often these ratings are accompanied by a sub-rating descriptor that explains why the show was given a particular rating. These descriptors are:

D – Suggestive dialogue (rarely used with the TV-MA rating)
L – Coarse language
S – Sexual content
V – Violence
FV – Fantasy violence (exclusive to the TV-Y7 rating)

ESRB Video Game Ratings

To avoid federal regulation of its video game content, the video game industry banded together to create an independent ratings organization called the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). It was formed in response to increasingly violent and sexually explicit game content developed in the 1990's that was drawing attention from concerned parents that were calling on the government to intervene.

Its rating system works in three parts: a rating category that describes the overall age appropriateness of the product, a content descriptor, and a warning if the game has elements allowing interactions with other players (which, obviously, cannot be rated). The content ratings are “C” or “EC” (Early Childhood), “E” (Everyone), “E10+” (Everyone over the age of 10), “T” (Teen), “M” (Mature), “A” or “AO” (Adults only), and “RP” (Rating Pending). There are currently 30 descriptors and three warnings about interactions, as well.

Music Industry Ratings

In 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Parent-Teacher Association, and the Parents' Music Resource Center developed the black-and-white warning sticker now used voluntarily throughout the music industry. Still the least closely regulated of the major media industries, the label is voluntarily applied to albums containing coarse language or descriptions that would be inappropriate for children in the opinion of the recording label distributing the album. A small sticker is applied to the outside of physical packaging or on digital storefronts indicating simply “Explicit” or “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.”

On the other hand, over the air radio broadcasts of music are among the most heavily regulated, with direct oversight by the FCC. All content must be within a certain range of appropriateness, with vulgar language and overly explicit content drawing fines and other penalties.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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