The announcement came as some 30 of the industry's top executives, including Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner of CNN, arrived in Washington on a chartered bus for meetings with members of the US Congress and a "television summit" with President Bill Clinton and the First Lady, Hillary Clinton.
"Arguably you are the most powerful cultural force in the world, but we know too that freedom and opportunity can truly thrive in a free society that is also a responsible society," Mr Clinton said.
In a joint statement, the industry's leaders said that details of the rating system would be worked out over the coming months and it would be introduced by the beginning of 1997. Programmes will be rated much in the way that the feature films are for the cinema.
The industry has been forced to act after a sweeping telecommunications bill was passed by the US Congress last month. The bill served notice to television executives that unless they moved swiftly to adopt a voluntary system of ratings, it would be forced on them.
The bill also included provisions obliging manufacturers to install so- called "V-chips" - violence chips - in all new television sets sold in the US. A television with the "V-chip" will allow parents to block programmes rated for sexual or violent content. Information on how each individual programme is rated will be included in the broadcaster's signal.
"Our objective is clear and firm," the industry statement said. "This enterprise is totally voluntary. There will be no government involvement." Only a few months ago the television community had been vigorously opposing any kind of ratings.
Agreeing on categories of ratings and their application is certain to be difficult. Broadcasters will be wary, for example, of imposing the same criteria for violent content on dramas, such as the hospital series ER, as for children's programmes like Power Rangers.
Nor is there any consensus on whether news magazines and soap operas should be affected. News bulletins, even though many include graphic footage, would probably escape.
Civil liberty groups fear the introduction of ratings could add up to censorship and the erosion of free-expression rights under the US constitution's First Amendment. But Al Gore, the Vice-President, said yesterday that the plan raised "no First Amendment questions whatsoever".