Independent Movie Ratings: It's All in the Family

It was an entertainment awards ceremony that saw the muppet Elmo winning a lifetime achievement prize, "Finding Nemo" (search) capturing the top movie honor and a few "losers" getting golden garbage cans to add to their trophy collections.

Tuesday night's gala, the first of its kind thrown by a nonprofit group called Common Sense Media, recognized the "best and worst" in family-friendly entertainment.

"Media and entertainment have an enormous impact on kids and families in this country," said Common Sense CEO Jim Steyer. "It's really important to have an independent nonpartisan voice to reflect kids and families across America."

Common Sense is just one of several organizations that independently rate media products for family-friendly content. Similar groups include, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and

"It's a 'Consumer Reports'-guide approach," Steyer said of the awards, whose winners and losers were voted on by the public. "We want parents to make good decisions for themselves and their kids. We do not take a moralistic or ideological or preachy approach."

Aside from "Nemo," which won the best family-friendly film award, CBS' "Joan of Arcadia" (search) won in the television category, Avril Lavigne (search) got the music nod, Leapster/Leapfrog snagged top honors in the video games/software category, was named the most family-friendly Web site and "Eragon," by 15-year-old Christopher Paolini, walked away with the book award.

The losers, presented with golden garbage can statuettes, included Rockstar Games (search) and Take-Two Interactive Software for "gratuitous violence" with their video games "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" and "Manhunt"; Abercrombie & Fitch's (search) "Christmas Field Guide" catalog for "offensive commercialism"; Miller Lite's "Catfight" and Coors Light's "Twins" beer commercials for "sheer stupidity" in showing the ads during daytime TV sports; and the Fox Network for "over-sexed entertainment" with primetime offerings like "Temptation Island" and "The O.C."

Steyer said Common Sense offers alternative ratings because the Motion Picture Association of America's film ratings aren't always helpful to parents, who sometimes find themselves taken aback by content or language even in films for kids.

"Some of the PG-13 movies out there are mind-boggling," Steyer said.

The MPAA stands by its G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 ratings system.

"The unwavering support of the rating system by the only constituents it seeks to aid, America's parents, has confirmed that it remains a beneficial tool," MPAA President and CEO Jack Valenti said in a statement on the organization's Web site.

Still, parents like Leslie Robey of Annandale, Va., have been surprised by scenes in PG movies. One portion of "Haunted Mansion," for instance, was more violent than she expected.

"There were frightening, realistic skeletons and mummies chasing the heroes in the movie," said Robey, 35, who told her 3- and 5-year-old sons to shut their eyes during the scene. "There are definitely things you don't anticipate."

Robey said she'd likely use the reviews compiled by Common Sense and other groups.

"It wouldn't be our sole source, but it would help narrow things down," she said. "It's nice to read ratings from actual families with children."

It's that narrowing down that pop culture expert Robert Thompson believes is a primary function of independent ratings.

"There is so much media out there, the idea is that nobody can navigate this stuff all by themselves," said Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television (search).

And Tinseltown isn't always the most appropriate place for children.

"Most of Hollywood tends not to recognize movies that are family-oriented or family-friendly," said E! Online movie columnist Anderson Jones. "It's important that groups like Common Sense Media exist, since Hollywood doesn't often make movies that appeal to a wider audience than, say, 'Kill Bill.'"

At the same time, Jones said, the groups' efforts seem a little archaic, and parents need to take more responsibility rather than pinning it all on the media.

"It doesn't seem very modern — it feels very 1950s," he said. "I'd like to see parents relying less on movies to teach anything."

Thompson said that until the 1960s, television was so sanitized that most programs, other than the news, were safe for kids to watch. The same went for pre-1970 films.

"The more and more our pop culture becomes fragmented by demographic definition," he said, "the harder it is to create a movie that everyone across the board wants to see."

Parenting has become trickier since modern entertainment is characterized by fewer restrictions on content and more choices.

"We are now at a period where we need to treat the TV set like the liquor cabinet," Thompson said. "There's stuff in there that we like, but there's stuff that isn't good for the kids and we have to be careful they don't get into it."