50 years of movie ratings


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, November 9th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. 

We typically have a movie review with Megan Basham at the helm. But she’s sick today – get well, Megan! – and  instead mark the 50th birthday of the way movies are rated in this country.

The Motion Picture Association of America created the movie ratings scale. Over the years, the standards for entertainment have shifted. Those of us old enough to remember earlier entertainment can certainly attest to that.

WORLD Digital’s Lynde Langdon is here to talk to us about those movie ratings.

First of all, Lynde, how did the modern movie ratings system even get started 50 years ago?

LYNDE LANGDON, DIGITAL MANAGING EDITOR: Well, the movie ratings system was conceived as the movie industry’s response to ongoing attempts to get the government to censor films and what was included in films. Before 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America issued a set of censor-friendly guidelines for all films that forbade things like blasphemy, obscenity, nudity, and sympathetic portrayals of criminals. But the code was hard to maintain as societal and cultural tolerance of immorality increased and the motion picture industry became increasingly worried that the government was going to step in and tell them what they couldn’t put in their films. So, they came up with the ratings system as a way of saying we’re going to warn people what content is in movies, but we’re no longer going to police the actual content itself.

REICHARD: So, how does the Motion Picture Association decide what rating to give a movie?

LANGDON: There is a ratings board and the raters view movies. They watch three to four movies a day and they make recommendations. The only qualifications to be an MPAA rater is you have to have children between the ages of 5 and 15 when you start being a rater, and you have to retire once your youngest child is 21. They also want raters who don’t have any ongoing affiliation with the movie industry. And those raters make recommendations based on a very loose group of guidelines. For example, a PG-13 movie is only supposed to have one instance of what they call “harsh or sexually derived words” or what we would call the “f-word.” However, even that is a little bit loose because movies such as the PG movie Big in 1988 had that word in it.

REICHARD: So, I’m wondering, given that, do parents find these ratings helpful?

LANGDON: On the 50th anniversary of the ratings system, the MPAA released a study of what parents think about movies. And it found that a high percentage of parents said that they know of the ratings. The system is almost universally known and understood by families, but only 84 percent of parents said that they thought the movie ratings were always accurate. And 71 percent thought that every movie they saw in the past year was rated appropriately.

REICHARD: And how would you say movies have changed in response to the ratings system?

LANGDON: When the ratings system first started, the PG-13 classification that we know so well didn’t exist. It went from G to PG to R and as producers wanted to incorporate more questionable material in the movies but yet not get the R rating that would keep families from coming to see the movies, the PG-13 rating was born. The PG-13 rating has become by far the most used in movies. Most of your summer blockbusters are going to be in that category. PG-13 movies have accounted for 12 or more of the top 25 U.S. films by ticket sales in the last, well, since 2011. So, that muddy middle ground has really become where most popular movies live today and that’s something that I think has a real big impact for families.

REICHARD: Lynde Langdon is managing editor of WORLD Digital and she writes a weekly arts column for the website called “Muse.” Thanks so much, Lynde.

LANGDON: You’re welcome.


(Photo/iStock, monkeybusinessimages)

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