Target: Boobs, guns and Coke

A new advocacy group called Common Sense Media is starting to rate the "kid friendliness" of movies, TV shows, CDs and video games. Will their services be a godsend for parents -- or just another V-chip?


Brian Montopoli
June 18, 2003 6:50AM (UTC)

Remember the V-chip?

Back in 1996, the so-called violence chip, which can be programmed to block television shows with objectionable content, was touted as a technological godsend for parents looking to control their children's viewing habits. Two and a half years after it became a requirement in all TVs 13 inches and larger, however, only 17 percent of parents report using it -- thanks in large part to lax efforts by the television industry to publicize the chip's existence. It should come as no surprise, then, that according to Nielsen Media Research, the most popular prime time show among 6- to 11-year-olds during a typical week in March was "Fear Factor," a show that celebrates those willing to eat large servings of pig rectum.

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Enter Common Sense Media. The San Francisco-based advocacy group -- which has the support of leading academics and businessmen, as well as half a million dollars in start-up capital from prominent financiers -- is a nonpartisan organization that aims to make media producers accountable to families while urging them to invest in high-quality programming for children. The group -- whose motto is "Giving your family and choice and a voice" -- recently unveiled a Web site that evaluates the kid-friendliness of everything from movies to books to music, and it hopes to make its "lifesaver" icon -- a round disk that breaks down entertainment by both age- and content-appropriate categories -- so ubiquitous that it eventually replaces the current ratings systems. With the help of restaurant guide guru Tim Zagat and the publishing industry, the group also plans to offer slim, easy-to-read weekly guides available at newsstands and through the mail; parents will be able to flip through them to judge whether the latest episode of "Boston Public" or "Friends" is appropriate for their kids.

"The current media environment isn't as kid or family friendly as parents wish it were," says Common Sense Media founder and CEO Jim Steyer, a Stanford University professor and the author of "The Other Parent," which discusses the media's effect on children. "It's an unregulated, free-market free-for-all. The industry does not have the best interests of kids at heart. They view them as little consumers. We want people to understand what's out there."

Steyer hopes to build a "critical mass" of concerned parents that will eventually be big enough and powerful enough to influence media conglomerates. But how likely is it that harried parents will even have the time to check out the group's Web site? Steyer insists that the site is "only a fraction of what we're going to do" -- and argues that word of mouth, as well as the increasing visibility of its ratings, will eventually put the group in a position to force limits on harmful marketing and give parents more control over the messages their children are exposed to. Perhaps more daunting than capturing the attention of parents, however, is the group's lofty goal of influencing the ratings boards. When it tries to get its ratings placed on products, Common Sense will have to take on the Motion Picture Association of America, which oversees both movie and television ratings, as well as the Recording Industry Association of America, which regulates compact disc warning labels, and the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which comes up with the ratings for video games. These groups have been around for years and have a lot of political clout.

"Poll after poll shows that our ratings system is meeting the needs of the audience we seek to serve," says Rich Taylor, spokesman for the MPAA. "There's a reason that the ratings system has sustained for 35 years."

Steyer, however, says that the current system is woefully inadequate.

"Who is the MPAA ratings board? Some anonymous people who live in L.A.," he says. "They're not child-health experts. The current ratings system is just a way for the industry to regulate itself, and there's obviously a conflict of interest there." (Taylor counters that the identities of the board members are kept hidden to protect the system from corruption, and he says that everyone on the board is a parent.)

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A recent poll of 1,000 parents, conducted by research firms Penn, Schoen & Berland and American Viewpoint, suggests that Common Sense Media may be on to something. Ninety percent of the parents polled said the amount of marketing in media makes children too materialistic, and 66 percent said they could do a better job of supervising their children's media diet; another 85 percent said that they would benefit from an independent media guide like the one Common Sense Media is building. But naysayers point out that despite a swell of popular and political support, the last great experiment in regulating media, the V-chip, quickly fell off of the cultural radar.

"A lot of families have a hard enough time monitoring when kids are watching TV in the first place," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "I can imagine a scenario where the parent is downstairs on the Web site while the kid is watching something he shouldn't be upstairs in his bedroom." Thompson is also troubled by the prospect of any one ratings system becoming dominant. "In using the ratings, a parent is making an assumption that they have the same value system as Common Sense Media," he says. "Different people are going to have different opinions on the appropriateness of something."

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The lifesaver icon was conceived to deal with some of those concerns. It includes an age recommendation in the center and four surrounding quadrants that gauge a product's language, sexual content, level of violence, and general content -- the last of which covers such vague categories as "scariness" and "social behavior." Steyer insists that reviews coming from Common Sense Media, unlike those from groups like the conservative Parents Television Council, will never have a particular religious or partisan viewpoint, and the group will not take donations from media entities that might seek favor in its reviews. As with the Zagat guides, controls are written into the system to weed out the influence of those with a vested interest. "This isn't a conservative or liberal issue," he says. "It's a basic societal one."

But do parents really need an advocacy group to tell them that the 50 Cent album "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" -- the one with the cover image featuring what appears to be a piece of glass punctured by a bullet hole -- isn't appropriate for small children, or that the Brazilian gangster movie "City of God," which features murderous gangs of roving teenagers, is quite violent? A lot of the ratings just reinforce good old, well, common sense. And the content on the site can occasionally seem corny and out of touch. For example, on its list of the "Top 10 Graduation Party Songs for Teens," Common Sense lists the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit." That might have been hip in 1975, but when was the last time you heard it playing on a teenager's iPod?

What is novel about Common Sense is that its members are just as concerned with the rampant commercialism found on networks like MTV as they are with sex and violence. The group's review of Fox's "American Idol" laments the "product placement and sponsorship" on the show, and instructs parents to "make sure the kids see this is just a commercial." Steyer says that the Fox Kids lineup, as exemplified by the Power Rangers series, is designed purely to sell licensed merchandise to children, with little concern for the message they might be receiving. He also lambastes the new Disney Visa Card ad, in which children encourage their parents to spend as much money as possible in order to win a trip to Disney World.

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"There is just this barrage of selling, selling, selling that kids are exposed to without parents even realizing it," says Steyer. "The average kid in America spends 47 hours per week with media, but the media industry has gotten a free ride from political leadership because they depend on media company contributions and coverage. They are beholden to media companies and thus are reluctant to criticize them or hold them accountable."

But if parents give Common Sense Media the same reception they have given the V-chip, the group might become just the latest example of culture warriors' good intentions going largely ignored.

"The parents who care enough to check out Common Sense Media," says Thompson, "aren't necessarily the ones who need to be using it."

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Brian Montopoli

Brian Montopoli is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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