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Watch What Kids Watch

As parents and networks argued over the six-month-old TV ratings system, a survey found that almost 65 percent of parents don't use it. Critics of the present system said that's because it's too vague. Some surmised that it is simply too new. Still others worried that parents don't have the time or the inclination.

There may be some truth to all three views. The current system, similar to movie ratings, has six broad categories, ranging from TV-G (shows suitable for general audiences) to TV-M (for mature audiences).

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But ratings based on age groups are problematic. As we said when the system was first developed last January, parents know better than television executives what's right for their four-year-old, their 10-year-old, or their 15-year-old. What's deemed appropriate in one household might not be acceptable in another.

On Wednesday all the major broadcast and cable networks (with the exception of NBC, which said the new system could lead to censorship) agreed with family advocacy groups on a better ratings system that will help tell parents what they need to know.

The six categories will remain but will include labels - S (for sexual content), V (for violence), L (for coarse language), and D (for suggestive dialogue). All shows now given the uninformative TV-PG rating will be designated as TV-PG-V, for example, or TV-PG-D, indicating violent content or sexual innuendo, respectively.

One possible stumbling block: At least in the beginning, the new ratings might seem confusing to some. But in the long run, "it would absolutely be more helpful to have more detail," as one parent told the Monitor.

That is, if parents are paying attention. Another survey, this one by Yankelovich Partners, a marketing and social research firm, found that more than 4 in 10 children ages 9-17 have their own cable or satellite TV hookups in their bedrooms - an indication that their parents aren't aware of what they're watching.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the new deal was the television industry's insistence that lawmakers not promote legislation about television content, scheduling, or ratings for three years - allowing sufficient time for families to get used to the new ratings system.

Key members of Congress agreed to such a moratorium, clearing a path for the new S-V-L-D labels. Still, if those labels are to mean anything, parents have to keep watch over what their children are watching.

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