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Movies Underwent ‘Ratings Creep’ in Last Decade, Harvard Study Finds

Today’s PG-13 movies approximate R movies from 1992, according to recent findings.

Violence, sex and profanity increased in movies of the same rating from 1992 to 2003, effectively creating a “ratings creep,” according to a study by the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health. The study appeared July 13 in the peer-reviewed journal Medscape General Medicine.

Violence, sex and profanity increased in movies of the same rating from 1992 to 2003, effectively creating a “ratings creep,” according to a study by the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health. The study appeared July 13 in the peer-reviewed journal Medscape General Medicine.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
“We find large variability exists in the types of content that receive different MPAA ratings,” wrote the study’s authors, Kimberly M. Thompson and Fumie Yokota. Thompson is associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at HSPH and also director of the Kids Risk Project. Yokota is a former HSPH researcher.
 
Their findings suggest the MPAA has become increasingly lenient in allowing rougher content into movies rated acceptable for younger audiences.
 
A press release about the study noted that the authors’ results “suggest that the overall increase arose largely from increases in violent content in films rated PG and PG-13, increases in sexual content in films rated PG, PG-13, and R, and increases in profanity in films rated PG-13 and R.”
 
The MPAA began assigning “rating reasons” for films in 1990. For example, “Unforgiven,” which won the 1992 Best Picture Oscar, was rated R “for language, and violence, and for a scene of sexuality.” Prior to 1990, the MPAA simply would have noted that the picture was rated R.
 
The Harvard study implies that a picture like “Unforgiven,” rated R in 1992, might well be a PG-13 today. Though some cultural commentators have opined as much, the new study provides quantitative evidence of such “creep.”
 
“The MPAA provides no specific criteria for its assignments of ratings or rating reasons,” the authors noted in the study. “Instead, it apparently leaves their assignment entirely to the judgment of its independent board of raters who view the films.”
 
The new study also found that smoking is never listed as a reason for a particular rating. Almost 80 percent of films in the study depicted some sort of smoking activity.
 
“Parents and physicians should be aware that movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount and types of potentially objectionable content,” Thompson said in the press release. “Age-based ratings alone do not provide good information about the depiction of violence, sex, profanity and other content, and the criteria for rating movies became less stringent over the last decade.”
 
Thompson and Yokota also called on the entertainment industry to consider a universal media rating system that would standardize ratings across products like movies, TV, music and video games.
 
“We believe that given cross-media marketing and the proliferation and interaction of media, the research community should play a key role in exploring the potential development of a universal media rating system,” they wrote.
 
The MPAA scoffed at the idea of such a system.
 
“A single body can’t rate everything that comes through the pipeline,” Rich Taylor, MPAA spokesman, told the New York Times. “It’s logistically unfeasible. With the volume of hours of TV and cable and film and games and music, it becomes a mathematical impossibility.”
 
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
 
The study’s press release is here.
 
The study is here (free registration required).