The TV parental guidelines are a television content rating system in the United States that was first proposed on December 19, 1996, by the United States Congress, the television industry and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and went into effect by January 1, 1997, on most major broadcast and cable networks in response to public concerns about increasingly explicit sexual content, graphic violence and strong profanity in television programs. It was established as a voluntary-participation system, with ratings to be determined by the individually participating broadcast and cable networks.
The ratings are generally applied to most television series, television films and edited broadcast or basic cable versions of theatrically released films; premium channels also assign ratings from the TV parental guidelines on broadcasts of some films that have been released theatrically or on home video, either if the Motion Picture Association of America did not assign a rating for the film or if the channel airs the unrated version of the film.
The ratings were designed to be used with the V-chip, which was mandated to be built into all television sets manufactured since 2000 (and the vast majority of cable/satellite set-top boxes), but the guidelines themselves have no legal force, and are not used on sports or news programs or during commercial advertisements. Many online television services, such as Hulu, Amazon Video and Netflix also use the guidelines system, along with digital video vendors such as the iTunes Store and Google Play and digital media players, including the Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV and Roku platforms.
Development of the guidelines
In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the United States Congress called upon the entertainment industry to establish, within one year, a voluntary television rating system to provide parents with advance information on material in television programming that might be unsuitable for their children. This rating system would work in conjunction with the V-chip, a device embedded in television sets that enables parents to block programming they determine to be inappropriate.
On February 29, 1996, all segments of the entertainment industry, led by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), joined together and voluntarily pledged to create such a system. They agreed that the guidelines would be applied by broadcast and cable networks in order to handle the large amount of programming that must be reviewed – some 2,000 hours a day. The guidelines would be applied episodically to all programming based on their content, except for news, sports and advertising.
On December 19, 1996, the industry announced the creation of the TV Parental Guidelines, a voluntary system of guidelines providing parents with information to help them make more informed choices about the television programs their children watch. The guidelines were modeled after the movie ratings system created by the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968. The television industry agreed to insert a ratings icon on-screen at the beginning of all rated programs, and to encode the guidelines for use with the V-chip. The industry also created a Monitoring Board, composed of TV industry experts, to ensure accuracy, uniformity and consistency of the guidelines and to consider any public questions about the guideline applied to a particular program. The TV Parental Guidelines went into use on January 1, 1997.
In response to calls to provide additional content information in the ratings system, on August 1, 1997, the television industry, in conjunction with representatives of children's and medical advocacy groups, announced revisions to the rating system. Under this revised system, television programming would continue to fall into one of the six ratings categories (TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-G, TV-PG, TV-14 or TV-MA), but content descriptors would be added to the ratings where appropriate, based on the type(s) of objectionable content included in the individual program or episode: D (suggestive dialogue), L (coarse language), S (sexual content), V (violence) and FV (fantasy violence – a descriptor exclusively for use in the TV-Y7 category).
Further, the proposal stated that the icons and associated content symbols would appear for 15 seconds at the beginning of all rated programming, and that the size of the icons would be increased. The revised guidelines were supported by leading family and child advocacy groups, as well as television broadcasters, cable systems and networks, and television production companies. Finally, the revised proposal called for five representatives of the advocacy community to be added to the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board. On March 12, 1998, the Federal Communications Commission found that the Industry Video Programming Rating System was acceptable, and adopted technical requirements for the V-chip.
- The direct description of each rating from the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board is listed above the extended ratings description in italics.
This program is designed to be appropriate for all children. Programs rated TV-Y are designed to be appropriate for children of all ages. The thematic elements portrayed in programs with this rating are specifically designed for a very young audience, including children ages 2-6.
This program is designed for children age 7 and above. Programs rated TV-Y7 are designed for children age 7 and older. The FCC states that it "may be more appropriate for children who have acquired the developmental skills needed to distinguish between make-believe and reality." Programs given the "FV" content descriptor exhibit more 'fantasy violence' and are generally more intense or combative than other programs rated TV-Y7.
This program is suitable for all ages. Programs rated TV-G are generally suited for all audiences, though they may not necessarily contain content of interest to children. The FCC states that "this rating does not signify a program designed specifically for children 10 years of age and older, (and) most parents may let younger children watch this program unattended." The thematic elements portrayed in programs with this rating contain little or no violence, mild language, and no sexual dialogue or situations.
This program contains material that parents may find unsuitable for younger children. Programs rated TV-PG may contain some material that parents or guardians may find inappropriate for younger children. Programs assigned a TV-PG rating may include some inappropriate language, very little sexual content, suggestive dialogue, and/or mild violence.
This program contains some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Programs rated TV-14 contains material that parents or adult guardians may find unsuitable for children under the age of 14. The FCC warns that "Parents are cautioned to exercise some care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended." Programs with this rating contain crude humor, drug/alcohol use, inappropriate language, strong violence (may include some amounts of blood and gore), and moderate suggestive themes or dialogue.
This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17. Contains content that is unsuitable for children. This rating was originally TV-M prior to the announced revisions to the rating system in August 1997 but was changed due to a trademark dispute and in order to remove confusion with the Entertainment Software Rating Board's (ESRB) "M for Mature" rating for video games. This rating is very seldom used by broadcast networks or local television stations due to FCC restrictions on program content, although it is commonly applied to television programs featured on certain cable channels (basic and premium networks) and streaming networks for both mainstream and softcore programs. Broadcast programming that has carried a TV-MA warning includes the pilot of the NBC internet animated horror series Happy Tree Friends and disaster series such as Earthquake on ABC, along with a few 10 p.m. ET drama series episodes with sensitive content. Programs with this rating commonly include dark humor, frequent use of profanity, intense violence (may include blood and gore), and/or strong sexual themes.
Some thematic elements, according to the FCC, "may call for parental guidance and/or the program may contain one or more of the following" sub-ratings, designated with an alphabetic letter:
- D – Sexual or suggestive dialogue (rarely used with the TV-MA rating)
- L – Coarse or crude language
- S – Sexual content
- V – Violence FV – Fantasy violence (exclusive to the TV-Y7 rating)
Up to four content descriptors can be applied alongside an assigned rating, depending on the kind of suggestive content featured in a program; the FV descriptor is an exception due to its sole use for the TV-Y7 rating, which can have no descriptor other than FV. As the rating increases pertaining to the age, the content matters generally get more intensive. These descriptors allow for 44 possible combinations for all the ratings total. The "suggestive dialogue" descriptor is used for TV-PG and TV-14 rated programs only. The violence descriptor was used for TV-Y7 programs from August 1997 until the creation of the 'FV' descriptor later that year.
An additional content descriptor, "E/I", is applied to select TV-Y, TV-Y7, and TV-G programs that are designed to meet the educational and informative needs of children aged 16 and under. A minimum of three hours of E/I-compliant programming must be broadcast per week by each television network; all E/I programs must air between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.
For the first 15 seconds of every rated program lasting a half-hour or less, a large rating icon appears in the upper-left hand corner of the screen; previously this had a common design using a universal icon, but now often goes with a network's branding scheme, or as Netflix does, merely denotes the rating in a straight line of text. The icon was much smaller until June 2005 and only appeared on-screen for 7.5 seconds. For every rated program running an hour or longer, a rating appears in the upper-left hand corner of the television screen at the beginning of each half-hour. Starting in June 2005, many networks now display the ratings after every commercial break, in addition to the beginning of the program. Ratings icons formerly appeared in the 4:3 safe area, even with a 16:9 HD-designed presentation, but have moved into the top-left corner of the 16:9 picture as time has gone on.
Viewer discretion advisories
Some programs may voluntarily display a disclaimer regarding the show's objectionable content with the TV rating prior to the program starting, along with audibly repeating the same, with the reason for the rating (e.g. suggestive dialogue, drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexual situations, violence, nudity) and strongly cautioning parents to decide whether the program is suitable for their children. Several channels (including NBC and ABC) insert special caution boards for horror animated programs at the end of commercial breaks, almost always occurring before a series uses the word "Universal Pictures" in uncensored dialogue.
Viewer discretion advisories are mostly used for programs rated TV-MA or series where most episodes are TV-14-rated with lighter content, where content may be unusual for the tone the series or event may usually have or for strong content. They are also commonly used for television broadcasts of theatrical films; this, however, depends highly on the content and rating (alternatively, said content might also be edited out).