Hollywood Ratings Getting Looser
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The movie "The Chronicles or Narnia" is one of several aimed at family audiences this holiday season. Parents may still have trouble deciding whether they are appropriate for younger children, however, and knowing a movie has a PG rating may not help, as NPR's Kim Masters reports.
KIM MASTERS reporting:
The Motion Picture Association of America rating scores cites battle sequences and frightening moments as the reasons for the parental guidance advisory on "The Chronicles of Narnia," but according to Luci Jenkins, an epidemiologist at UCLA, that kind of language is too vague to be of much help to parents. Jenkins did a study analyzing violence in the top 100 grossing films of 1994. One conclusion was that much of the descriptive language employed by the MPAA was murky.
Ms. LUCI JENKINS (Epidemiologist at UCLA): We found several films that were rated primarily for something like `thematic elements' or `a moment of menace,' these really vague, ambiguous terms.
MASTERS: The study also concluded that distinctions between the ratings categories were fuzzy at best. Theresa Webb, a researcher on the UCLA study, says 10 percent of PG-13 films had more acts of violence than the average R-rated film.
Ms. THERESA WEBB, (Researcher): The system is not segmenting these categories, at least on the parameter of violence, in any cohesive way.
MASTERS: Parents may get much more intensity than they bargained for, particularly with PG films like "Star Wars: Episode II" or "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Kimberly Thompson, a Harvard professor and director of the Kids Risk Project, says based on content, those pictures could have been rated PG-13, as the latest installments in both series were. Thompson worked on a 2004 study analyzing movies from the previous 10 years.
Professor KIMBERLY THOMPSON (Harvard University): If your expectations about what's in a PG-rated movie are based on your experience from several years ago, then times have changed, and the ratings are not necessarily reflecting the same things that you might expect.
MASTERS: Thanks to ratings creep, a film that might have been rated PG-13 a few years ago might now be PG. Thompson sites the Tim Allen movie "The Santa Clause" and its sequel.
Prof. THOMPSON: Even though the content of the films were pretty similar, you know, what we saw over that time period is that the rating changed from PG to G.
MASTERS: In fact, Thompson's study suggests that the creep has been more of a gallop.
Prof. THOMPSON: We saw almost a full shift in the ratings such that an R-rated movie from 1992 would now almost be PG-13 on average.
MASTERS: Like the UCLA researchers, Thompson says ratings could be far more transparent. But Dan Glickman, head of the MPAA, says the system is simple and clear.
Mr. DAN GLICKMAN (Motion Picture Association of America): There's nothing really been done better, and it's got a very, very high support rating from the American public.
MASTERS: Still, Glickman seems to be open to discussion. His predecessor, Jack Valenti, was the father of the ratings system, and he defended it vociferously. Valenti relinquished control over the system just three months ago, and Glickman says he's making his own evaluation.
Mr. GLICKMAN: I don't think the ratings system is built on Mt. Sinai. It's not set in stone.
MASTERS: But Glickman admits the ratings system doesn't tell parents whether the latest PG movie is too intense for a young child. The ratings, he says, should simply be an initial guide for parents.
Mr. GLICKMAN: If a parent exercises control and parental responsibility, they will go look up on other Web sites and get additional information which is out there in a much more comprehensive form.
MASTERS: Those parents who want more information can find detailed descriptions of sex, violence and profanity in films on Web sites such as kids-in-mind.com or ScreenIt.com. Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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