Pols Unimpressed by Studio Promises


Washington-Hollywood's proposals to stop marketing violent movies to children have assuaged some recent critics in the U.S. Senate, but left many a bit queasy about the industry's commitment to limiting access to bloody and sexual images.

The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday grilled the chiefs of eight major film studios on their plans to restrict ads for R-rated films to programs that children would be unlikely to watch. They questioned the effectiveness of the proposals and the studios' interest in complying with the rules.

The studios endorsed a 12-step plan, pledging to review their marketing strategies to ensure that violent and obscene films would not be offered to children and to give parents more information about movie ratings. Motion Picture Association of America CEO Jack Valenti proposed the plan last Tuesday, and more recommendations came from studio heads the next day.

"I still am concerned about the language in some of the initiatives," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who cited an industry initiative to not "knowingly" include viewers younger than 17 in test screenings for movies rated "R" for violence, unless accompanied by an adult.

"What is this 'knowingly' about?" asked McCain. "If you're responsible for the screenings, you should know about it."

Replied Valenti: "This is what we are going to do voluntarily."

The hearing, the second in two weeks on the subject, follows a Federal Trade Commission report which indicated that Hollywood studios routinely target children for R-rated films.

Even as company CEOs attempted to quell the firestorm of criticism generated by the FTC study, Mel Harris, president and COO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, admitted to advertising a violent film to children, calling it a "judgment lapse."

McCain said he was pleased with actions promised by Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, The Walt Disney Co. and DreamWorks SKG, which said they would not market any R-rated movies to children.

Jim Gianopulos, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, announced that parent company News Corp.-which owns broadcast and cable TV networks-would not broadcast ads for R-rated films when children comprise at least 35 percent of the potential audience. Fox will also ask theater owners not to run trailers for such films prior to those rated G (general audiences) and PG (parental guidance suggested).

Executives for other studios said they would not rule out pitching movies with weighty historical or social content to children.

When Stacy Snider, chairwoman of Universal, praisedBoyz in the Hood-a 1991 film about the struggles of African Americans growing up in South Central Los Angeles-McCain shot back, "Boyz in the Hooddid not need to be marketed to children."

Other committee members questioned the movie industry's ability to regulate itself.

"Violence pays," Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) said. "You're going to advertise."

A bill to banish violent programming from daytime television was introduced by Hollings and passed the Commerce Committee last week.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) asked: "What is the penalty that you will impose on a colleague.for playing it loose with the guidelines you set today?"

The 12-point set of initiatives said only that each member company would appoint an executive to regularly review the company's marketing practices and that the MPAA would annually review compliance.

A company that violated the rules "would face potential termination or likely termination from the group," The Walt Disney Co. president Robert Iger said. But the executives did not offer information about how the guidelines would be enforced.

The hearing was not about censorship or federal regulation, McCain said, noting that the committee has oversight responsibilities for the FTC and "needed information."

Studio heads fiercely defended the MPAA's 32-year-old rating system, rejecting proposals for a new, universal rating system.

Referring to the choice of which films children see, Harris asked, "Who makes that decision? The parents. Our job in the industry is to give them as much information as possible to help them make an informed decision."

Harris said a recent study indicated that 81 percent of parents with children under the age of 13 found the ratings to be useful.

States News Service