Movie industry may kill ratings

Apr 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Setting the stage for an all-out war between Hollywood and Congress, the motion picture industry is threatening to kill the movie ratings system if lawmakers enact legislation that penalizes entertainment companies for marketing adult-rated content to kids.
The bill, offered by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., received a key endorsement last week from New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It empowers the Federal Trade Commission to fine movie studios, music companies and video-game manufacturers found to be deceptively marketing adult fare to youngsters, including content that is violent, sexually explicit or filled with foul language.
A key concern of lawmakers is the advertising of violent R-rated movies during television shows popular with teens.
Expressing strong opposition to the measure, Motion Picture Association of America President and CEO Jack Valenti said he’ll recommend that Hollywood stop using the ratings, which have been in place since 1968, if Congress passes the bill and the courts uphold it.
“I think this legislation could be more accurately entitled a death-sentence bill for voluntary film ratings,” he said, insisting the dramatic move would be “the only alternative left” to avoid putting studios at legal risk.
“The government cannot devise and enforce its own ratings system,” he said, calling the measure an affront to the Constitution. “You cannot, will not, ought not to intervene in First Amendment-protected material.”
Dan Gerstein, spokesman for Sen. Lieberman, maintained that the First Amendment is not a license to deceive.
“The FTC brings actions all the time against companies that make misleading claims about their products. What they’re saying is they want to preserve the ability to target kids,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lieberman told Electronic Media last week that Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is considering holding hearings on these broader issues.
Panel spokeswoman Pia Pialorsi had no comment.
The Connecticut senator had modest praise for the entertainment industry in the wake of an FTC report last week that gave movie studios and video-game companies credit for making some positive changes to their advertising policies.
“I’ll say to you with some satisfaction that the FTC interim report had some very encouraging news,” he said, but cautioned, “The FTC report makes clear that the problem has not been entirely solved.”
Sen. Clinton essentially picked up where her husband Bill Clinton, as president, left off. President Clinton, Sen. Lieberman and other legislators had requested a larger FTC report released in September that shed light on how Hollywood purposely targets teens.
“Parents need some assurance that the ads their kids are watching are not encouraging them to purchase a violent or sexually explicit product,” she said.
Also backing the bill is Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis. “For too long, the entertainment industry has drawn a bull’s eye on our children’s backs,” he said. “The legislation we’re talking about is simple: it targets the worst behavior.”
The measure would let the FTC issue cease and desist orders and impose civil fines-not criminal penalties-of up to $11,000 per offense.
The FTC says it doesn’t have the authority to crack down on marketers of adult content without such legislation. But agency officials also insist the approach tramples on the First Amendment.
“Bringing a case [against a company] is very difficult here,” said an FTC source, speaking on condition of anonymity. The FTC is concerned that the first penalty it imposes would be challenged in court and that it might lose, effectively defanging the agency.
FTC officials prefer to give self-regulation more time to work and will turn to legislation as the last resort.
The bill lets these industries sidestep penalties if they adopt and enforce strict codes of conduct, something only video-game makers have done. It also requires the FTC to conduct two more studies into the advertising policies of these industries over the next six years.
Sen. Lieberman insisted his bill does not censor content, but Mr. Valenti said the threat of prosecution would effectively result in censorship.
Early last week the senator said he thinks his bill has a shot at passage. “I have confidence my colleagues will listen to the arguments. It seems to me if you rate something for adults, you ought not to sell it to kids. It’s as simple as that,” he said during an interview following a speech in Washington.
“The entertainment industry is a powerful industry. But I believe in this, and I’m going to fight for it. And I believe that America’s parents want this kind of help in raising their own kids.”
Nevertheless, Sen. Clinton and Sen. Kohl are the only co-sponsors at this time. Mr. Valenti said the bill doesn’t stand a chance of passage by the Senate, but if it ever gets enacted it will be “dead on arrival” in a federal court.
Given the FTC’s encouraging words in its latest report, Mr. Valenti thinks lawmakers should give Hollywood studios at least another year to prove they can regulate themselves before pursuing other options.