- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

A new entertainment watchdog group is offering parents a ratings system to help them monitor their children’s choices in movies, television, music, video games and Internet sites.

“American parents are in a bind,” said James Steyer, founder and chief executive of Common Sense Media, a new nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in San Francisco.

“They recognize the harmful side effects of media on their kids, but they don’t necessarily have the resources or information to protect them,” said the author of the popular book “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of Media’s Effect on Our Children.”

Last month, the group asked 1,000 parents if they were concerned about violence, sex and materialism in the media.

A large majority — between 85 percent and 90 percent — said yes. There was also strong support for a “uniform” rating system for all types of media.

Common Sense Media plans to push for a national rating system, Mr. Steyer said. In the meantime, the group provides parents with a simple, colorful rating system for TV, film, DVDs, videos, video games, music, Web sites and print media at www.CommonSenseMedia.org. For instance, the blockbuster R-rated movie, “The Matrix Reloaded,” is rated for children 15 and older, with “red lights” warning of its “intense violence” and “extreme peril.”

Fox TV’s “American Idol” received mostly “green lights” as a family show for children ages 8 and older, but was also given “yellow lights” for “commercialism” and “social behavior” because the program’s three judges were “awful models of tolerance,” Mr. Steyer’s group said.

Parents and children are asked to offer their own reviews as well.

The new group has dozens of entertainment professionals, academics, business leaders and child development specialists on its advisory board and board of directors. Two former chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission — Newton N. Minow and William Kennard — are included.

Unlike some media watchdog groups, Common Sense Media will not advocate any show being “taken off,” said Mr. Steyer. “Our philosophy is sanity, not censorship.”

Common Sense Media arrives after years of efforts to get U.S. entertainment companies to reduce their levels of violence, sex, vulgarity and antisocial content. Part of the problem has been educating parents, said Bob Waliszewski, who has monitored pop culture at Focus on the Family for a decade.

Parents don’t go to movies but once or twice a year and they don’t buy pop albums but they are shocked when told which CDs are the top sellers, he said.

To assist parents, Focus on the Family has been offering reviews of films, music and TV shows for 15 years, Mr. Waliszewski said.

What’s not known, he said, is whether people change their viewing or purchasing as a result.

“Ultimately,” said Frank Vespe, executive director of Turnoff TV Network, “the only vote that really matters to the broadcast and television industries is the one that you do with the on-off button and the channel changer.”

“If people stop watching dreck, they’ll stop getting dreck,” he said, noting that last month, an estimated 7 million people turned off their TV for a week.


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