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School's Out. Time For Ratings Education

28 May, 2003 By: Kurt Indvik

June is “Ratings Awareness Month” for the home video retail industry, declares the Video Software Dealers Association. For the third year now, the VSDA has chosen June — the month when kids get out of school for the summer — to remind retailers of their role in working with parents to ensure they understand the ratings system for both movies and video games, and to make sure parents understand the parental controls they have in restricting, or not, their kids' access to ‘R' rated movies and ‘M' rated video games.

The irony of the timing of this campaign won't be lost on anyone this year in light of the Washington state law signed a couple of weeks ago, making it illegal to sell or rent to minors video games that depict violence against law enforcement officers. The fact is that the VSDA has long held that voluntary standards at retail and parental controls are much more effective in keeping objectionable (to some parents) material out of children's hands, without trampling on First Amendment rights.

The VSDA launched its “Pledge to Parents” program way back in 1991. That program provides a free kit to video retailers (whether you are a member or not) that includes posters spelling out the MPAA film ratings and ESRB video game ratings for parents, as well as other promotional items about the program. As far back as 1987 the VSDA endorsed the MPAA ratings and encouraged retailers to adhere to the same voluntary practices in renting videos to age-appropriate customers as the theaters use in selling tickets. In 1994 the VSDA also endorsed to ESRB ratings. In 1999, in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, the VSDA “relaunched” the Pledge to Parents program to drive home to retailers the sensitivity of the issue and the important role retailers play with parents.

Today, according to the VSDA, the use of some parental control program is “almost universal” in the video retail business, whether it's the Pledge to Parents program or a chain-branded program. And for good reason. The fact is that despite what legislators say they are hearing from their constituents, anecdotal reports to the VSDA from retailers is that industry-voluntary programs work. Parents can set their authorization for whatever rating level of movie or game for any family member on their card when they sign up. They can change those authorizations. They can override them with a phone call or a note. In short, they have the right to make the decision as to what their kids can, or cannot, consume in the way of media.

Will some kids find a way to get around the system? Of course. Do some kids sneak into ‘R' rated movies once they get inside the Cineplex? You bet. Do you see any legislation on the horizon that will make it a crime for movie theater owners to sell tickets to minors for ‘R'-rated movies. No. But, hey, when you're facing reelection you can never go wrong attacking violence in the media.

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