- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2019

A cable reality show that follows naked couples on a blind date — sometimes with objects dangling from blurred genitals — secured approval for 14-year-old viewers.

In its one-season reboot, ABC’s “The Muppets” routinely slipped in sexual innuendo and drug and alcohol references but managed to land a family-friendly TV-PG rating.

And the nation’s television ratings watchdog didn’t even have a telephone number or an updated website.

All of this came to light in a recent Federal Communications Commission report to Congress about the oversight — or lack thereof — performed by the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board.

But the FCC report stopped short of concluding that the nearly 20-year-old, industry-run TV rating system teems with inaccuracies, citing the short amount of time Congress gave the agency to complete its study. Lawmakers gave the FCC 90 days to review the system and catalog nearly 2,000 public comments.

Those comments include numerous complaints about an industry-dominated board providing lax oversight and inaccurately rating its own profit-making products.

The FCC report cited comments pointing out that the prime-time occult crime procedural “Medium” scored a TV-14 rating (suitable for viewers 14 and older) when it ran on NBC but received a TV-PG rating (suitable for viewers 7 and older) when it aired on CBS.

Other commenters complained that the TV-14 rating is used so broadly that it is meaningless and is applied to mild innuendo such as in CBS’s romantic comedy “The Big Bang Theory” and the gore and violence of AMC’s zombie drama “The Walking Dead.”

The report, delivered May 15, marks the FCC’s first review in 20 years of the nation’s cable and broadcast television ratings system, mandated by Congress in a provision tucked into the spending bill passed in February.

The system operates on the voluntary compliance of members of the television industry, which lawmakers pressured in the late 1990s to crack down on displays of violence and sexuality. The 24-member TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board comprises 18 industry representatives and a handful of nonprofit groups, and is supposed to address viewer complaints about ratings.

But the report says secrecy and inconsistency plague the board. Meetings are closed to the press, the board often fails to respond to complaints, and contact information for the board is hidden, the 15-page report notes. In one instance, the board’s website didn’t include a working phone number.

“We are pleased that this problem was recently fixed,” the report’s author, Michelle M. Carey, chief of the FCC Media Bureau, said in its pages.

The board defended its performance in a written statement to The Washington Times: “Polls clearly show that parents value the TV ratings system as a source of accurate and helpful information to guide their family’s viewing. The TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board remains committed to continuing to provide parents with the necessary resources to make informed choices.”

Still, complaints abound. According to one comment filed with the FCC, when a parental watchdog group raised its criticism to a VH1 executive about inappropriate content on the reality show “Dating Naked,” which featured bachelors and bachelorettes in the buff (with genitals blurred), the executive responded that the show was “about relationships.”

VH1 did not respond to a request for comment from The Times. “Dating Naked” aired for three seasons before it was canceled.

The president of the Parents Television Council, which approached the VH1 executive, expressed optimism about the FCC report’s findings.

“It’s reaffirming to see some of this come to light,” said council President Tim Winter.

However, he is less convinced that the report will lead to significant action.

“It’s kind of like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” Mr. Winter said. “They may do one of the four or five things proposed, and then hope that satisfies everyone.”

The industry says the ratings system is working and offers its own surveys, showing nearly 95% satisfaction with the ratings. Citing a lack of time, the FCC did not conclude that the system was broken but observed an apparent discrepancy.

“We note that nearly all of the commenters voice concern or dissatisfaction with some aspect of the TV Parental Guidelines, the oversight of the television ratings, and/or the content of television programming,” Ms. Carey said in the report, acknowledging that industry representatives assert that the board provides “meaningful oversight.”

The FCC encourages structural changes to the TV Parental Guidelines Oversight Monitoring Board, including an annual meeting open to the public, more regular review of programming and increasing transparency in the complaint process.

Greater transparency “would make it easier to assess whether ratings are being accurately and consistently applied” and help sort out whether commenters’ criticisms are valid, the report states.

One concern noted by many groups is that the number of original content on streaming platforms that eschew the ratings system altogether keeps growing. In 2018, Netflix spent $8 billion and aired more than 700 original series, according to its own numbers.

“Some of these shows model the TV ratings framework, some cobble together their own and others just make it up,” Mr. Winter said.

While congressional regulation of the television industry is dormant under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it could be activated should the industry’s voluntary label system fail.

However, at this time, Congress appears comfortable with a hands-off approach. In a March letter, Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, told FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that he did not believe “the government needs to enter the business of regulating the entertainment industry.”

However, he noted many concerns, including commercials with sexuality and violence accompanying sports programming. On Thursday, a spokeswoman issued a statement on Mr. Lankford’s reaction to the report.

“Parents do not have a clear and transparent process to share their complaints when TV ratings do not match the content,” the spokeswoman said in an email. “Senator Lankford looks forward to the Board taking the FCC’s recommendations to update the process and provide transparency to TV ratings for programming.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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