American networks to classify TV shows

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Bowing to a barrage of criticism from public and politicians about on- screen sex and violence, America's big four television networks plan to follow the example of the cinema industry and introduce a ratings system for their programmes.

According to industry officials, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are close to agreement on a common system which they hope to present to President Bill Clinton at a "TV summit" at the White House in two weeks' time.

The aim would be to head off what for the networks would be a far worse alternative - mandatory government controls that in the current political climate would be backed by both major parties.

If anything unites Democratic liberals and right-wing social conservatives, it is the view that the sex and violence so universally and copiously available on TV are major culprits for the problems of crime and family breakdown, and the perceived general "decay" of American society.

These arguments were reinforced last week with the publication of a report commissioned by cable TV companies, confirming what everybody knows - that violence is endemic on American television. It is to be found in almost 60 per cent of all programmes. Frequently it is glamourised, even treated as a joke.

Adding to the pressure on the industry is the provision in the sweeping telecommunications regulations bill signed by Mr Clinton last week, that from 1998 all new TV sets should be equipped with a so-called 'V-chip,' enabling parents to block shows they consider too violent. This chip would read an electronic ratings code embedded in the programme.

The industry's initial reaction was to mount a constitutional challenge to the V-chip in the courts, on the grounds it would violate the First Amendment right of free speech. But as the networks quickly realised, such a step would merely blacken their image further.