Tuesday, May 3, 2005

PG could stand for “Pretty Ghastly,” if researchers are right.

Film ratings for violence generated by the Motion Picture Association of America are all but meaningless, according to a study released yesterday by the School of Public Health at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“The movie industry’s rating system and its prose explanations frequently hide more offensive elements behind euphemistic and innocuous terminology,” said Theresa Webb, a researcher with the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center within the school. “This makes informed parental choice extremely difficult.”

The study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found violence in unlikely places, identifying nearly 100 violent acts, for example, in the 1994 film “The Jungle Book,” which was rated PG.

“There have been a lot of these studies criticizing the ratings system, yet the system is still very popular,” MPAA spokesman John Feehery said yesterday. “We urge filmgoers to use our ratings in conjunction with other sources to determine if a film is suitable.”

The voluntary rating system went into effect in 1968, provided by the California-based MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners. Both maintain that ratings are intended only as guidelines.

The system was revised in 1990 to include descriptive content after being criticized by the Federal Trade Commission and others in recent years as “too lenient” and “misleading.” The rating systems now includes G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children), PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; material may be inappropriate for children under 13), R (restricted for those under 17) and NC-17 (no one 17 and under admitted).

Indeed, ratings language is not particularly specific. For example, in PG-rated films, “horror and violence do not exceed moderate levels,” according to MPAA guidelines.

The UCLA study categorized such language as “vague.”

The study’s research team pored over 98 movies released in 1994 as a representative basis for the analysis, which correlated the degree of violence in each film with its official MPAA rating.

The results? UCLA’s criteria found that all but three of the films contained at least one incident of bodily harm and that violence was often used as a humorous plot device. A quarter of the violence was classified as “lethal” by researchers.

The three films with the most bodily violence were “Timecop,” an R-rated action film, with 110 violent acts; “The Jungle Book,” a PG-rated retelling of the classic Rudyard Kipling tale, with 97 violent acts; and “True Lies, an R-rated action movie, with 91 violent acts.

On average, the UCLA study found that among those films flagged by the MPAA for violence rather than language or sexuality, R-rated films contained 62 violent acts, PG-13 averaged 55 acts and PG averaged 56.

The MPAA ratings system provided “little meaningful guidance related to violent content” for parents and filmgoers in general, the analysis stated, adding that MPAA ratings also failed to predict the frequency of violence in each film.

“Parent and other organizations have been calling for meaningful content rather than age-centered ratings for years, and now there is scientific evidence to support that argument,” said Lucille Jenkins, director of the study.

Producers themselves are joining the fray. The Walt Disney Internet Group, for example, sponsors a movie review site (www.movies.com) meant to help filmgoers make “informed entertainment decisions.” Other sites review movies on Christian-based values.

President Bush recently signed the Family Movie Act into law, which approves new filtering technology that allows parents to skip or mute sections of movies shown at home that contain violence, nudity or questionable language.

The UCLA study is published in the current Pediatrics, a journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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