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Media Ratings: Television

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The television industry has created a rating system for its programs in the form of the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board. A downloadable PDF describing this system is available here. This board marks each television program (aired in the United States) with codes designating an appropriate audience. Specific content labels are also provided. The TV ratings appear in a black box in the corner of screen at the beginning of the show and sometimes during the show after commercial breaks.

Appropriate audience labels use abbreviations to indicate the youngest audience for which the program is appropriate. Programs with a "Y" label are considered appropriate for all audiences and are probably aimed specifically for younger audiences, including children ages 2-7 years. Shows labeled with a "Y7" are aimed at slightly older children, specifically those over age 7 years. These programs may contain some mild fantasy violence and may not be appropriate for children who cannot tell the difference between reality and make-believe. While this programming may be appropriate for most 8-year-olds, some 8-year-old children who have not developed the ability to differentiate reality from fantasy may become distressed by the show.

Television programs that are labeled with a "G" are meant for general audiences. While the content may not be aimed specifically for younger children, there is nothing in the program that would be inappropriate for them. There is little or no violence, little or no strong language, and little or no sexual dialogue or situations. Shows labeled "PG" are shows that the television industry believes may need parental guidance. The theme of the program may be difficult or inappropriate for younger audiences, or it may contain some instances of strong language, some sexual dialogue or situations, and moderate violence.

Parents are "strongly cautioned" to monitor their children's viewing of shows labeled "TV14." These programs are probably inappropriate for youth under the age of 14 years. These programs may contain intensely suggestive dialogue, coarse language, intense sexual situations, or intense violence. Furthermore, shows labeled "TVMA" are designated for only adult audiences, and youth under age 18 shouldn't view them. They probably contain crude language, explicit sexual activity, or graphic violence.

Content labels use abbreviations to show what questionable or concerning content a show may contain. A label "D" means that there is "questionable dialogue" in the program, and this dialogue is probably sexually oriented. An "L" label means that the program contains strong language, or swear words. There are still swear words that the television industry elects never to use. An "S" label means there will be some sexual situations. A "V" stands for violence, and an "FV" indicates there is some "fantasy violence," most often non-realistic cartoon violence. These labels will always appear below the appropriate audience label in the box.

Television shows with adult content frequently are broadcast in the evening at a time when children are theoretically asleep. However, parents need to remember that it is fairly easy to record television broadcasts these days, and that children may be able to watch them from recorded sources and also from Internet downloads. As is also the case with movies and music, parents must monitor their children's television consumption directly by paying attention to what programs their children are watching.

Many set-top-boxes provided by cable or satellite companies feature the ability to set up parental controls so as to require a password to be provided before adult-rated content may be viewed or recorded (if the box is also a DVR). Parents can use these parental controls to have better control over what television programs youth can easily view. Consult your cable or satellite provider's website for instructions on setting up parental controls. General information about setting up cable box parental controls is available at

Because children may gain direct access to movies through illegal Internet downloads and non-traditional sources, parents cannot rely on parental controls to enforce compliance with ratings. Instead, they must monitor their children's television and video consumption directly by paying attention to what their children are actually watching and asking questions about where programs may have come from.


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