Washington-Reacting to a highly critical government report on the marketing of violent entertainment to children, the Senate Commerce Committee is set to vote next week on a bill that would quarantine violent shows to late-night hours when children are least likely to be watching.
As proof that the report packed an immediate political punch, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week assured bill sponsor Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) that the committee would vote on the bill on Sept. 20-just nine days after the report's official release by the Federal Trade Commission.
Hollings, a longtime critic of media violence, supports a "safe-harbor" approach that puts TV violence out of the easy reach of kids, arguing that ratings systems and technological fixes such as the V-chip are ineffective.
"In all candor, we know the ratings are no good," Hollings said last week.
His bill could conceivably touch on marketing practices through a ban on the advertisement of violent entertainment content when children are watching TV during prime time.
TV lobbyists are prepared to fight the bill.
"We've opposed this bill in the past and we still oppose it," said David Beckwith, spokesman for the National Cable Television Association.
The cable industry has endorsed a parental ratings guide coupled with the V-chip, a electronic circuit which allows for per-channel blocking installed on nearly all new TVs built since Jan. 1, 2000.
McCain made his commitment to Hollings last Wednesday, at the start of a hearing last on the FTC report. The report found that Hollywood studios routinely market "R"-rated films to children under 17, who are not permitted to see such films unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
The FTC report said 80 percent of 44 R-rated films it examined were marketed to kids under 17.
The FTC's year-long study, which documented similar practices in the music and computer-games industries, said the marketing schemes had the effect of undermining the industries' own voluntary ratings systems.
The agency determined that the movie industry promoted R-rated films in magazines and comic books that are widely read by children and on television programs that are popular with young teens. It also found poor enforcement of R-rating restrictions at the box office.
An undercover FTC investigation revealed that unaccompanied children between 13 and 16 were able to buy tickets to R-rated films 46 percent of the time.
Teen-favorite MTV: Music Television was identified in the report for running ads for R-rated films. The network responded with a statement that read in part: "Like Washington policy makers, MTV is extremely concerned about violence and young people..We have a set of program standards that we apply to all programming that we acquire or produce ourselves and we do not air violent programming. We also review all our commercials.
"MTV is not a network for kids," the statement continued. "Our primary target is the 18- to 24-year-old audience and our programming and marketing is focused on that demographic. That said, it's virtually impossible to avoid reaching teenagers anywhere on television."
The report also cited ads run on Comedy Central's animated series South Park. The network replied: "Comedy Central is an adult network and South Park is an adult show. Eighty percent of our audience is 18 and older, and 76 percent of South Park's audience is 18 and older. Movies buying advertising on South Park are reaching their intended audience."
President Clinton asked for the FTC study after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., last April, in which students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people before taking their own lives.
Relying on several academic studies, medical experts told McCain's panel that exposure to senseless entertainment violence contributes to aggressive behavior in children.
Although some senators said the effects of media violence had to be factored into a larger sociological stew that contributes to youth alienation, a bipartisan group condemned the marketing tactics and warned that if self-regulation fails, the government could step in.
"This practice is deceptive. I believe it is outrageous and I hope it will stop," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee who left the campaign trail to testify at McCain's hearing.
The Republican ticket was also represented. Lynne Cheney, wife of GOP vice presidential nominee Richard Cheney and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said she was appalled by homicidal lyrics by rap star Eminem but warned that legislation was fraught with peril.
In comments that echoed the views of many Republican senators, McCain called the marketing practices described by the FTC "immoral" and "unconscionable."
McCain was clearly angry that no studio-owning corporate CEOs appeared before the committee last week.
"Their hubris is stunning, and serves to underscore the lack of corporate responsibility so strikingly apparent in this report," said McCain, who promised a second hearing on Sept. 27. He said Time Warner Inc. chairman Gerald Levin and The Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner may attend.
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, prefaced his testimony by saying there had been some confusion regarding invitations. He said that McCain's staff wanted testimony from the studio heads, rather than the corporate chieftains.
Valenti said all the studio bosses except one had legitimate conflicts and could not appear on such short notice. He also assured McCain that Hollywood executives would appear on Sept. 27, but did not provide names.
The FTC report documented practices that had to be stopped, Valenti said. He vowed to report back to McCain's panel on the measures that studios and theater owners would take.
"It appears from the report that some marketing people stepped over the line where reasonable becomes unacceptable, and I am talking about 10- and 12-year-olds in a focus group," he said. "That is wrong, and it is unassailably wrong, and there is no excuse to sustain it."
But Valenti said the R rating was intended to inform parents in advance about objectionable content in a movie, not to serve as a warning that children shall not be admitted under any circumstances.
"The R rating does not mean for adults only. That's the province of the 'NC-17' rating. Many parents take their children to R-rated films," Valenti said.
Some in Hollywood have already gotten the message about the trouble brewing in Washington. Disney, for example, announced last Tuesday that its ABC Television Network would not accept ads for R-rated films prior to 9 p.m. and it would not target children under 17 in market research for such films.
Under the Hollings bill (S. 876), it would be unlawful to distribute violent video programming at a time when children are likely to comprise a substantial part of the audience, as determined by the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC may exempt sports and news programming, and would be required to exempt premium and pay-per-view cable networks.
The agency would also punish offenders by revoking their licenses or refusing to renew them under rules that would take effect one year after the bill's enactment.
The bill covers broadcasters, cable operators, direct-broadcast satellite carriers and any other entity that distributes video programming by wire, microwave or satellite.