TV Chiefs Pessimistic On Move To Ratings

WASHINGTON -- The 30 entertainment executives, including many of the richest and most powerful in the industry, sat one beside another in a row opposite the president of the United States with all the enthusiasm of so many dental patients sitting down for root canal work.

Here they were, the giants of the broadcast networks, the cable providers and the production companies, being told Thursday that their industry represented a serious threat to the moral development of the nation's children.

They emerged from their two hours committed to identifying violent and sexually explicit programs and providing parents with the means, via a computer "v-chip,'' of blacking out these programs.

And now the hard part begins: establishing a rating system that can be in use in American homes by the first of next year; and then actually rating the 600,000 hours a year of programming that is typically available from a 72-channel cable television provider.

Although the entertainment moguls pledged unity and cooperation, many of them harbor deep misgivings about the impact of such a system on their viewers, their advertisers -- and their bottom lines.

"I'm not against providing information about programming, but the v-chip is dangerous,'' Barry Diller, now chairman of Silver King Communications, said after the meeting. "The most we should do is to provide parental advisories on some shows, not ratings.

"People are going to realize how difficult this is going to be,'' said Diller. "TV is not movies. TV series change week to week. How do you define sexual or violent content? Is 'Ren and Stimpy' [a satirical cartoon series on cable television] violent? Is 'The Simpsons' sexual because it may occasionally show Homer Simpson's butt? And how does that compare to a love scene on 'NYPD Blue'?"

At the other end of the spectrum, Michael Ovitz, president of Walt Disney Co., the new owner of ABC, was the most vigorous of the broadcast network executives in supporting a rating system. But even Ovitz warned that the deadline of Jan. 1, 1997, posed a difficult challenge.

"I think it's doable, but it's going to take a lot longer than everybody expects,'' Ovitz said.

On this much, however, they agreed: It's better for the television industry to produce its own rating system than let the government do it under provisions of the new telecommunications law. Some expressed strong concerns privately.

"Where does this end?'' asked one industry executive who requested anonymity. "Are we going to have politicians who don't even watch the shows they condemn telling us what kinds of shows we should be putting on the air? Will special-interest groups demand their own ratings system?"

The most difficult part of creating the ratings system, executives said, will be to find categories and definitions of content that can be applied by all the networks. Network executives are divided about how difficult it will be to rate the shows once categories are determined.

One executive said it would be extremely difficult to rate the thousands of hours that air each week. But another said that, once categories are agreed upon, it would be time-consuming but not impossible for the networks to rate their shows.