Culture Matters:

Standard Ratings versus User Ratings: What’s the Difference?

by | Jan 21, 2021

Often, before going to see a film at the theater, or pressing play on our remote, we check the rating of a film or series. On most streaming platforms, this is found on the title’s information page. For movies in theaters, ratings are found at the end of the trailers played on television commercial breaks or in the paper.

MPAA Film Ratings

We check film ratings, so we understand what we type of content we are going to see. Since 1922, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has provided us with a standardized rating system, allowing us to know what to expect from a film.

The MPAA established film content guidelines, paving the way for the streaming services we all know and use today. Netflix, Paramount, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros. are just a few of MPAA’s affiliates. All association members adhere to a voluntary film ratings system (circa 1968, replacing the Hayes Code of 1930). Although MPAA ratings have no legal standing, theater owners can enforce the assigned ratings and choose not to exhibit nonrated (NR) films.

Image Courtesy of, information from MPAA

Television Ratings

Television ratings depend more on the contents’ distributer and country of origin. In the United States, television ratings are easily identified by the TV- that precedes a rating, as well as the timeslot in which the show is scheduled. As in other countries, contentious material or material rated for viewers above the age of 14 or 16 is never allowed to air before 9 p.m. and after 6 a.m. (approximately).

Image Courtesy of  ResearchGate

Overall, a show’s distributor oversees how its content is rated. Netflix manages rating of its content, NBC supervises rating of its shows, etc. Ratings are a way of placing content into a specific age bracket, thus ensuring viewers will know, generally, what to expect from a show or film before pressing Play –they are meant to assist viewers in understanding what to expect from a show or series, and who should avoid what type of content.

User Ratings

Beyond movies, television, and even video game ratings, there are user ratings. Several organizations have formed to either provide a broad user-based review of available media, like Rotten Tomato’s audience score; Nielson Global, with their ability to parse peak user interaction and viewership using sampling methodology; and Common Sense Media, which focuses on providing safe and educational media for children and their families.

Though the United States relies on the MPAA system for film ratings, it also relies on word-of-mouth. Why else do people read movie reviews? According to a “US News” article from 2014, the MPAA system has fallen under scrutiny because of its broad definition of what qualifies as PG-13. Public survey information is scarce, and with everyone stuck at home while we wait out COVID-19, many are looking for the next thing to watch on Netflix, Hulu, or Prime-either by word-of-mouth, a written review, or simply scrolling through the ever-growing queue.