Critics of the new code-which will flag violence and sexual content in TV programming-include ad groups, Hollywood directors and the top-rated broadcast network, NBC, which won't use the new system. They charge the ratings amount to a government attempt to regulate program content.
"There was nothing voluntary about this. It was won at the point of a legislative gun," said Patrick Maines, president of the Media Institute, a First Amendment think tank.
Noting the increased likelihood that marketers will be the target of boycotts based on sponsorship of certain shows, Mr. Maines added, "The real goal isn't to provide more information about programming they dislike, but to kill such programming."
The Parents Television Council, a conservative group sharply critical of the language, sexual content and violence in some current TV programming, said it didn't hold out much "hope" for using the new ratings to target advertisers.
"It all depends on how the ratings will be used," said council Chairman Brent Bozell, noting that "the `S' for sexual content, could be used for the `Cosby' show and `Melrose Place,' if you want to befuddle everyone."
The ratings require that networks add a "V" for moderate violence, an "S" to show sexual situations, "L" to indicate some coarse language and a "D" to indicate suggestive dialogue. There also is an "FV" rating for fantasy violence.
Mr. Bozell said he doesn't favor advertiser boycotts, but added that a working ratings system would permit the creation of an advertising "politics of shame" for prime-time advertisers similar to the one that several years ago helped rein in daytime talks shows.
"The entity that has escaped scrutiny has been the advertisers," he said. "I don't know how many times [TV] insiders have told me they do the things they do because of the advertisers."
WOULD ADAM SMITH APPROVE?
"If in fact free-market pressures are brought to bear on advertisers, that is just Adam Smith smiling from his grave," said U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.).
The concern that the ratings would be used to pressure advertisers drew objections from ad groups.
"The decision to change the rating system came rather quickly and is a rather quick rush to judgment," said Hal Shoup, exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "The question always is how far should you go before you have government dictating programming content?"
"Our position has always been that for ratings to be useful, they must be voluntarily developed by broadcasters, not by government edict," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP, Association of National Advertisers.
ADVERTISERS NOT CONCERNED
Advertisers themselves claim not to be as concerned.
"Whether or not there is a new ratings code established, we will continue to work hard to be a responsible advertiser, buying programming that we consider appropriate," said a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Co., the nation's largest advertiser. "We are not going to make any changes. We are accountable first to our consumers."
Ms. Hall said P&G would evaluate programming by how it perceives the content, not by the new ratings.
NBC, in rejecting the plan, questioned the governmental involvement.
"We think the recommendations that are being asked for are not recommendations that will help parents or the industry. We have a contract with our viewers and are not in favor of responding to the screams of whoever screams the loudest in the special-interest world," said Roz Weinman, exec VP-broadcast standards and content policy at the network.