Listener Email: PG-7 Rating
02 Nov. 2019

Listener Email: PG-7 Rating


Susan, one of our Supergirl Radio Legal Consultants, wrote in to clear up some of the mystery surrounding the PG-7 television rating.

Since you admittedly love diving into detail, thought I would clear up the mystery about the viewer email regarding PG-7, with what I’m sure is way too much detail then you’d ever want to read on the podcast, but I expect you’ll find it interesting.

So as not to bury the lede, your quick research was correct, there is no such rating. It’s a mash-up of PG and TV-7.  Not sure if that was intentional. But, I thought I would dive a little deeper into the answer.

Television content is regulated by the government/FCC in the United States, based on the theory that because there are a limited number of broadcast licenses that can be issued for any particular area – otherwise they would interfere with each other and no one would get a decent signal – the government can require broadcasters to act in the public interest. Otherwise, the government telling a private business such as a TV network or station what it can and cannot say would violate the first amendment.

The famous legal case that first raised the question was FCC v Pacifica, when George Carlin did a bit on a radio station which was commonly referred to as “the seven dirty words you cannot say on televison”, all of which he said on the radio in the middle of the afternoon. The FCC attempted to fine the radio station. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s ability to do so. The reasoning of the court rested on a two main things: scarcity of broadcast licenses, and that broadcast signals are pervasive…they come into your home without you doing anything and expose your kids to things that you don’t control.

One of the other regulations the FCC had enacted was the “family viewing” hour policy. It essentially required that any entertainment programming that is on during the first hour of primetime – 8 pm on the coasts and 7 pm in central and mountain time – had to be appropriate for viewing by a general family audience. The regulation was declared unconstitutional in 1976 a lawsuit brought by the Writers Guild and Norman Lear.

But, the court made clear that the individual broadcasters were free to adopt their own family viewing policy, without government impetus or input, and many of them continued to follow that rule. The national television networks followed, and it became their policy that the 8:00 pm hour was for family viewing. They are, after all, businesses who have to answer to advertisers and their audience.

When cable television came along, it was a different story. Having cable is a choice – it doesn’t end up in your house or in front of your kids without you making a conscious decision to bring it into your home. That is especially true for premium channels. That is what made HBO different when it started doing original programming. Basic cable networks are somewhat in the middle, practically speaking, as well as from a regulatory perspective. There is a higher bar for the government to regulate content on basic cable than broadcast, but until very recently, basic cable networks tended to follow the broadcast rules for original programming. That isn’t the case anymore, and no one has challenged them in court. Streaming services like Netflix, of course, are subject to none of these rules or guidelines. They have a first amendment right to show whatever they want, just like premium cable channels.

The TV Parental Guidelines came about more recently. There is a long history to how things landed there, but the upshot is that when the government started looking at more regulation, industry pointed out that adults should have the freedom of choice and the freedom to choose for themselves what their kids are exposed to.  Technology improved so that most TVs now have a “v-chip” – named because the impetus was to regulate violence on television – and if someone wants to, they can add parental controls to the TV set based on ratings, and the v-chip will edit what can be watched based on the guidelines entered by the parents. So, the ultimate outcome was that the broadcasters agreed to put ratings on their shows to enable the v-chip to be used by parents. Cable channels also choose to do so because it’s the right thing to do. For more information on the specific ratings and what they mean, see tvguidelines.org

Since Supergirl started out airing at 8 p.m. on both CBS and the CW, the networks’ wanted it to be appropriate for family viewing. The Supergirl writers probably have a bit more leeway now that it is on at 9 p.m., but so far they haven’t really changed their approach. Agent Carter was a 10 p.m. show, and Jessica Jones is on Netflix, so that is why they have different “rules” for the nature of the content of the show.

Your faithful legal consultant,

Susan

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