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If the television networks expect a pat on the back just because they are finally trying to establish their own system of rating their programs for sex and violence, they had better think again.

Yes, such a rating system can make it easier for parents to screen out objectionable programs with an electronic blocking device known as a V-chip.But this technology comes only on brand-new TV sets, meaning it won't be widely available and in extensive use for many years. The networks are acting only because the new Telecommunications Act requires them to do so, not because they want to.

Moreover, it's no secret that a similar rating system for movies has not made films any less prurient or violent. Consequently, it's hard to believe that a rating system will be the cure for what ails the TV industry either.

To the extent that new TV ratings are helpful, the value judgments of the networks can still be no substitute for the decisions of individual viewers as to the kind of programs acceptable in their homes.

The objective should be not just to label sex and violence on the tube but reduce and eventually even eliminate it. Only a few days ago a major new study found that 57 percent of all TV shows depict some violence. Worse yet, such programs rarely show the suffering and other long-term consequences of violence.

But limited and reluctant progress is better than no improvement at all. The current gains are coming in response to vigorous objections about TV violence and sex - objections from all sides of the political spectrum and just about all segments of society.

The lesson should be clear: If Americans want TV to thoroughly clean up its seamy act, the public can't afford to be satisfied with the sop of a new ratings system but had better keep the pressure on.