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I've always liked them
Racy cell-phone ring tones prompt wake-up call

Ratings system for customized sounds on horizon

Gunfire echoes as the sounds of chaos and terror shatter a peaceful afternoon.

Excuse me while I take this call.

The fascination with customized cell-phone ring tones is in the midst of a severe — and possibly offensive — evolution. Shotgun blasts. Rapid gunfire. Horrific screams. Bodily functions. Even sexual moans and groans.

Now, like other forms of entertainment deemed racy or radical, ring tones are being primed for a ratings system.

CTIA — a Washington, D.C.-based organization for the wireless industry, which represents 200 companies and nearly all of the nation's 170 million cell-phone users — is in the nascent stages of instituting a ratings system similar to the ones used for movies and video games.

''We do hope to put into place a central repository for ratings,'' said association spokesman Joe Farren. ''It's still early and still being developed, but it is something that is certainly being worked on by the industry.''

The world of ring tones, though, is like the electronic Old West: Anything goes, and anyone with a rudimentary understanding of sound files can create one. And that means even if these companies create a rating system it's not automatic that the hundreds of Web sites that sell ring tones will answer the call.

Many of the Web sites that offer adult ring tones are pornographic. Others are personal Web sites, including a slew of European-based links.

But this new slew of PG-13 cell-phone rings is pushing the limits of taste. And perhaps safety.

''I have heard the "gunshot" and the "crowded theater,'' said Peter Shankman, CEO of the Geek Factory, a New York City technology trend-spotting firm. ''All you need is to have that go off in a convenience store as you're pulling out your money to pay for your coffee.''

Ring tones have moved from a novelty into a more than $3 billion industry.

The process of purchasing one is fairly simple. Most cell-phone providers allow customers to purchase these directly by phone, the primary source of sales. Ring tones can also be downloaded easily from the Internet. The charge typically ranges from $1 to $3.

Demand has been so strong that the number of ring tones sold through Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless in October eclipsed the total sales of 2003.

The rating system — which is being modeled on the Motion Picture Association of America and Record Industry Association of America's guidelines — is scheduled to debut next spring.

Nonetheless, there's only so much control a content label can provide, especially with the Internet's near-limitless reach. Finding ring tones of a bed vigorously squeaking, carnal panting or even a person vomiting in a toilet — yes, it's out there — is hardly a challenge.

Mechanisms to screen these ring tones are emerging.

BCGI — a CTIA member — recently launched Mobile Guardian, which allows users to limit the type of content downloaded, such as ring tones. Think of it as a v-chip for a cell phone.

''We believe in self-expression, but we know there's a lot of youth that target our site,'' said Mark Baric, of 2ThumbZ Entertainment. ''We really stick to a PG-13. We have seen them from sex noises to animal noises, but we have drawn the line at PG-13. But we're one of the few.

''Is anything going to change? I think the answer's no because people are making money off of it,'' he said.

A Vchip for cellphones? :2004: