The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) yesterday released a study titled, Politically Determined Entertainment Ratings and How to Avoid Them.
The authors conclude that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) provides the most comprehensive and useful ratings of any major media ratings system. While I agree with this, I have to wonder if it's a predetermined conclusion based upon the fact that the ESRB is the least regulated ratings system.
The CEI, afterall, "is a non-profit public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government."
To further this suspicion of mine, the CEI sets up a supposed "apples to apples" comparison between the ESRB and radio saying:
On the other hand, in the radio market, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposes vague but sweeping content guidelines over almost all broadcasts. The threat of FCC-imposed fines has done nothing to give parents greater control over their children’s radio listening habits—they have virtually no way to protect their children from adult material like explicitly sexual “shock jocks” and violent hip-hop lyrics. Heavy regulation and the absence of a private ratings system have made radio worse for parenting.
The CEI report goes to great lengths to pull out two examples where "shock jocks" have broadcast obscene material and points out that fines were levied "after" (their emphasis) the obscene material was broadcast. The authors conclude:
In short, the current system does nothing to either help parents or to keep adult content separated from family-friendly fare. By contrast, satellite radio allows parents to block out shock jocks like Howard Stern, who broadcasts on his own satellite channel.
However, they fail to point out that in the case of Opie and Anthony, the NYC "shock jocks" who allegedly broadcast a Virginia couple having sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral, the consequences were severe: Infinity broadcasting fired them.
The CEI may argue that free market forces, namely the outcry of listeners and advertisers pulling ads, forced Infinity to fire them.
I would argue that it was the strict FCC guidelines that gave teeth to the Catholic League's threat to have the license of WNEW revoked (the station that employed Opie and Anthony...owned by Infinity) if the "shock jocks" were not fired. Because of this, I believe that the current system did quite well in keeping these two "shock jocks" off the public airwaves, thus helping parents to protect their children.
But, getting back to the false comparison, the askew framework, set up by CEI of placing the ESRB at one end of the ratings spectrum (good) and FCC regulation of radio on the other end of the spectrum (bad)...
The two media are completely different and it is difficult to compare them. I think that it is more of an apples to oranges comparison. As the CEI report notes, the airwaves are publicly owned and are therefore analogous to a public park: Certain standards of decency are expected, and, like a public park a fine or an arrest is only going to happen after (my emphasis) a crime is committed. Warning labels simply do not apply.
In the case of video games, a $30 to $60 product is much easier to keep out of the hands of children who often rely on their parents to purchase the game. As the report concludes, the ESRB has come up with an effective ratings system without government intervention. It simply makes sense that the government would not get involved.
This brings me back around to the question posed in my title, "but why the report?" It seems that pretty much everybody agrees that the independent ratings systems in place for video games, TV, and movies are effective and informative. These media lend themselves to such industry-imposed regulation. Pointing out that the ESRB ratings, the least regulated of them all, are the most effective only seems to bolster the claims of the CEI in regard to limited government.
In other words (to use a Bushism), it seems like a sort of no-brainer report written to spotlight something that the CEI already agrees with, which brings me around to my only real criticism of the report: It offers no alternatives, no solutions, to what it considers to be ineffective FCC regulation of the radio.
I can only conclude that the CEI would like to see the public airwaves auctioned off to corporations so that we the people would no longer own the airwaves. This would turn the "public park" into a Six-Flags where you'd have to pay to enter and the rules of the park are dictated by those who own it.
In that scenario the FCC would not have the ability to levy fines or take away licenses. Instead, the CEI, I presume, would argue that free market forces would ultimately decide what is lewd/obscene and what isn't; the "private ratings system" that they would like to see in place.
But again, what and how would that ratings system work in regard to radio, an entirely unique medium freely available to anyone with a $3 radio?
It's all very interesting and I don't disagree with the CEI report when it comes to the effectiveness of the ESRB, MPAA, and TV guidelines. I just think that it's odd that radio was given such harsh treatment when it is unique to the other media covered and there is little evidence of radio being a medium from which our children need to be protected...there's no "there" there.
My conclusion is that the report, in its entirety, is definitely worth a read. The history of ratings systems of various media is not only interesting, but good knowledge to have in your back pocket. As always, just remember the source and factor that in when coming to your own conclusions, be it reports from the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, or in this case, the CEI.
You can read the full report (PDF) here.
If you'd like to see a group who thinks the ESRB is doing a terrible job, you can check out the National Institute on Media and the Family.
After years of criticizing the ESRB ratings and calling for improvement and overhaul of the system, we have come to the conclusion that the system itself is beyond repair.