- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Shining a spotlight on the movie rating process may not earn anyone an Academy Award, but an honorable mention in the “Best Support for Parents” category might be in order. And if Hollywood ever did bestow an Oscar for this new family-friendly category, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri deserves a nomination.

Some on Capitol Hill are beginning to scrutinize the movie rating process after a recent dust-up with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over the PG classification of a film — a rating which was allegedly based on its religious content. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that a “low-budget, inspirational football movie [“Facing the Giants”] made by Baptist pastors in Georgia triggered a flood of attacks by Christian groups that accuse Hollywood’s main trade association of penalizing the film by giving it a PG rating.”

The complaints were, according to the news report, because the “filmmakers say they were told that [religious]themes prompted the PG rating.” And while this particular controversy looks like insensitive communication about a sensitive topic, the broader issue of movie ratings deserves some fresh congressional scrutiny.

But Mr. Blunt, the third-ranking Republican in the House, is raising some larger questions about the ratings process. While media reports frame the debate narrowly on whether religious content penalized a particular film, Mr. Blunt’s broader appeals also deserve attention and answers.

In a letter to Dan Glickman, president of the MPAA, Mr. Blunt wrote, “it has been widely reported that MPAA gave a PG rather than G rating to the movie “Facing the Giants,” apparently solely because the movie contained Christian themes. This incident raises the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence.”

Yet Mr. Blunt’s broader concerns received less attention. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor “Good Morning America” mentioned the larger point Mr. Blunt raised in his letter to Mr. Glickman : a 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health that found MPAA’s standards on sex and violence in movies have been getting weaker. According to Mr. Blunt, the study concludes: “yesterday’s R movie is today’s PG-13, and yesterday’s PG-13 is today’s PG.” The words of the Harvard researchers are even more ominous. “The findings demonstrate that ratings creep has occurred over the last decade and that today’s movies contain significantly more violence, sex and profanity on average than movies of the same rating a decade ago,” stated Kimberly Thompson, one of the Harvard researchers, when the study was released in July 2004.

Those are strong and unsettling conclusions — concerns that deserve, at a minimum, more exposure and understanding. The Missouri lawmaker convened a meeting with a bipartisan group of his colleagues (four Republicans and two Democrats) and MPAA officials in his Capitol office to discuss the matter further this past Tuesday. Neither the media nor Congress had given the Harvard study a lot of attention until Mr. Blunt’s recent interest. Moreover, in my informal survey of top staff and knowledgeable individuals on and off the Hill, no one can remember Congress holding hearings about the movie rating process. “We’ve had hearings on violence in video games and others on music lyrics, but I can’t remember Congress holding hearings on movies,” one Hill aide told me.

The MPAA began a voluntary rating process in November 1968 “that it continues to use with relatively few changes since then,” according to the Harvard researchers. The same study suggests many parents want more descriptive information about content and that there may be a “disconnect between parent preferences and those of the ratings boards.” A private-sector-driven, effective and more descriptive movie rating system is a valuable and useful tool for parents. It’s obviously a delicate area for governmental involvement, and if not handled properly, the risks of it being labeled censorship by some are high. While the government should shy away from setting standards or ratings, congressional hearings on the topic would help to shine a bright light on changes or trends in the rating process that deserve broader attention — like the Harvard study — so parents have the best information possible to guide their children in what many believe is an increasingly coarsening culture.

Prodding filmmakers to find better tools to evaluate movies may not earn lawmakers like Mr. Blunt a handprint on the sidewalk outside Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but it will give parents a foothold to make better decisions about what their children watch.

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