Sen. Mike Lee wants TV content warnings to address the ‘radical and sexual sensation’ of children’s television

Utah Sen. Mike Lee joined four other Republicans in signing a letter requesting a meeting with the voluntary TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Sen. Mike Lee speaks to media after winning the Utah Republican Party nominating vote, Saturday, April 23, 2022 in Sandy.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, along with four other Senate Republicans, has requested that the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board ensure the television rating system is warning parents of “disturbing content” on children’s television. That disturbing content, the Republicans say, includes LGBTQ characters and the discussion of “irreversible and harmful experimental treatments for mental disorders like gender dysphoria.”

Those concerns were outlined in a May 4 letter to the monitoring board’s Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin. The letter was signed by Lee and Sens. Roger Marshal of Kansas, Mike Braun of Indiana, Steve Daines of Montana and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.

The senators’ request mentions their concern about comments from a Disney executive who said she supports having more LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex and asexual or allies) characters that lead Disney stories.

“To the detriment of children, gender dysphoria has become sensationalized in the popular media and television with radical activists and entertainment companies,” the letter says. “This radical and sexual sensation not only harms children, but also destabilizes and damages parental rights.”

But, even if the GOP lawmakers could persuade the monitoring board to voluntarily change its rating system, television programmers are not legally obligated to comply with the board or with lawmakers’ recommendations.

A spokesperson for Lee did not respond when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune why the senator signed the letter or if there were specific examples of television shows that Lee worried were harming children.

When asked by The Kansas City Star which children’s show characters could be harmful, Marshall’s office said Nickelodeon’s “Danger Force” and “The Loud House,” Netflix’s “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” and Netflix’s upcoming show “Dead End: Paranormal Park.”

The letter also alleges — while using language that parallels right-wing political accusations of “grooming” — that the “motivations of hypersexualized entertainment producers striving to push this content on young audiences are suspect at best and predatory at worst.”

Grooming has historically been understood as the coercion of victims by child sexual abuse predators, but some Republicans have begun using the term politically, FiveThirtyEight reported, because it “neatly draws together both modern conspiracy theories and old homophobic stereotypes, while comfortably shielding itself under the guise of protecting children.”

“There is no better moral panic than a moral panic centered on potential harm to children,” Ball State University history professor Emily Johnson, a specialist in gender and sexuality in U.S. history, told FiveThirtyEight.

The TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board was created in December of 1996 after the Telecommunications Act was signed earlier that year. According to the voluntary board, which is made up of representatives of the television industry, their purpose is “to help ensure accuracy, uniformity and consistency of the guidelines and to consider public questions and complaints about the guidelines applied to a particular program.”

Television consumers are familiar with the rating system, like the “TV-Y7 and “TV-MA” symbols that appear before rated shows.

A November 2020 monitoring board study of more than 1,000 families found that 95% of parents were satisfied with the accuracy of the rating system and 77% of surveyed parents were “often or sometimes” using the rating system.

Along with requesting that the television rating system be updated to address their concerns, the GOP senators also requested a response by May 18 and an in-person meeting with the board.