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February 16, 2019

Why television shows have gotten rougher and why ratings don’t always work

television remoteYou’re not old, and you’re not imagining it.

Today’s prime-time television shows are MUCH rougher and raunchier than they were just a few years ago.

And it’s perfectly legal according to today’s Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the federal agency that oversees the public airwaves.

Except it’s not really legal.

In 1978, the FCC set up rules that set limits on what content could be shown on public airwaves. The action set up “safe harbor” times that prohibited the airing of obscene, indecent or profane material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. – the hours that children were most likely to be in the audience.

FCC's definitions of obsenity, indecency and profanity.
This is how the FCC defines what is obscene, indecent and profane. Learn more at

These are still in effect, but the FCC hasn’t enforced them for many years. There is a backlog of more than 1.5 million obscenity cases that have not been reviewed, and in 2013, the organization proposed relaxing the regulations against expletives and nudity. Public feedback was overwhelming against the changes, but broadcasters and others in the entertainment industry supported them. A final decision is expected this year.


Competition with cable spurred the rough stuff

Why is all this happening? Blame cable. The public networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS and the CW) began losing viewers when cable networks such as HBO and others began producing their own content. Since cable networks do not have to abide by the safe harbor laws, they were free to produce shows that featured more sexual and violent content than what was allowed on public networks. Shows such “Sex and the City,” ”Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” ”Game of Thrones,” and “The Walking Dead” began leading the ratings.

In response, the public networks began pushing the envelope on skin, sex, violence and language during their prime-time (aka safe harbor) programming.


Ratings can help—a little bit

It’s time to face a harsh reality; safe harbor hours have been torpedoed from the airwaves and Hell will have blizzard conditions before the networks and FCC admit their culpability. However, there are a few tools parents can use to protect their children from some of prime time’s emphasis on blood, bimbos, bullets and boorish brats.

Television ratings can give parents a small heads-up about a show’s content. The ratings, which can be seen in some television listings and during the first 15 seconds of a show, look like this:

Image credit:
Image credit:

The bulk of network programs are either PG or PG-14. The popular cable shows are generally MA.

  • PG: Parental guidance suggested
    Unsuitable for younger children. The theme of the show or content within an episode can contain one or more of the following: some suggestive dialogue (D), infrequent coarse language (L), some sexual situations (S), or moderate violence (V).

    • Current Examples: “The Middle,” “Blackish” and “Once Upon a Time”


  • PG-14: Parents strongly cautioned
    This program contains material that parents may find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under 14 watch unattended. The program may contain one of more of the following: intensely suggestive dialogue, strong coarse language, intense sexual situations, or intense violence.

    • Current Examples: “The Blacklist,” “The Bachelor,” “Vampire Diaries,” “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Goldbergs”


  • MA: For mature audiences only
    This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17. The program may contain one or more of the following: crude indecent language, explicit sexual activity or graphic violence.

    • Current Examples: “American Horror Story,” “Outlander,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead”


Parents should keep in mind the ratings are set by the network itself, not an independent body. Public networks will not give any show higher than PG-14 because it hurts their bottom line; younger age ratings mean more viewers, and more viewers bring in more advertising revenue. Hence, we have a lot of “ratings creep” in TV-14 programs, and many critics say these shows contain the same kinds of violence or sexual content as their TV-MA cousins.

The system is a win for the networks and their advertisers, but it’s a crap shoot for parents.



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