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It's time to get real about 'R' rated movies

It has been said that everybody in Hollywood loves symbolic gestures. The Motion Picture Association of America, as an outgrowth of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, is certainly no exception. And to prove it, the MPAA recently made a grand, but entirely meaningless gesture with a change to its 40+ year-old film ratings system.

Instead of providing parents with any new or meaningful information, the MPAA’s “Check the Box” campaign simply increases the font size and location of the film’s content description.  

As an industry response to growing public concern about kids’ easy access to graphically violent media content, it’s a joke. But the joke isn’t funny.

Who can make sense of a system that gives a terrifying horror film like "Drag Me to Hell" a less-restrictive rating than the non-violent "King’s Speech"?

Media violence is a serious issue, and it deserves serious attention from the entertainment industry. 

Instead all we get are form-over-substance solutions like this one, designed to make it appear as if Hollywood is doing something and to keep Congress off its back, while allowing them to just keep on doing what they’ve been doing.

In order for any content ratings system to be effective, there are four essential components.

First, the system must be accurate. While most parents are familiar with the MPAA ratings, and upwards of 70% of parents still check the MPAA ratings before allowing their child to see a movie, there is wide-spread dissatisfaction with the movie ratings, with many parents expressing concerns that the PG-13 rating is “too lenient,” misleading, and lacking specificity in regard to content that might be of concern.  A film rated PG-13 could contain copious violence, one act of violence, or no violence at all – and just how graphic the violence might be is anyone’s guess.

Second, the system must be transparent.  Director Tom Hooper, whose movie "The King’s Speech" received an R-rating not because of graphic violence or explicit sexual content, but because of multiple uses of the F-word in the context of a speech exercise, complained, "I go to see 'Salt,' where a tube is forced down Angelina Jolie's throat and then water is poured down her throat to simulate drowning, that's not a problem.”

Or, as "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker derisively sneered in their movie "Bigger, Longer, and Uncut," -- "Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words!”

Who can make sense of a system that gives a terrifying horror film like "Drag Me to Hell" (the trailers alone could induce nightmares) a less-restrictive rating than the non-violent "King’s Speech" and the same rating as "Les Miserables"?

Third, the system must be consistent. A parents’ job is made even harder by the very real phenomenon of ratings creep. 

A 2004 study from the Harvard School of Public Health has shown that “ratings creep has occurred over the last decade and that today's movies contain significantly more violence, sex, and profanity on average than movies of the same rating a decade ago." 

In other words, the content in a film rated PG today is comparable to what you might have seen in a PG-13 movie a decade ago, and today’s PG-13 is more like yesterday’s R. And the line keeps moving.

The PG-13 rating is the golden mean for movie studios. A more restrictive R-rating means less revenue at the box office. As a result it has become a catchall for all manner of raunchy comedies, comic book-inspired action films, spy thrillers, summer blockbusters filled with explosions, gun violence, car chases – you name it. Because it applies to everything, in practice, it means nothing.

And fourth, the system must have some level of public accountability.  At this juncture, a movie producer or a Hollywood studio can appeal a content age rating they feel is too restrictive; but parents have no recourse at all to appeal film ratings they feel are not restrictive enough.

Millions of Americans are looking for leadership from Hollywood on media violence, but instead we get empty gestures and meaningless platitudes. 

Parents want a commitment from the entertainment industry to curtail on-screen violence, and they deserve the industry’s follow-through on that commitment. They are looking for Hollywood to stop marketing violent media products to their kids. They are looking for a ratings system that actually tells them what they need to know in order to make the best possible choices for their families.

The solutions America needs to the problem of media violence won’t come from using a larger typeface.

Tim Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council, a non-partisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment.