WWF, TV council go to mat in court

Jun 11, 2001  •  Post A Comment

How far can an advocacy group go to pressure advertisers to shun programs the group finds offensive or even dangerous?
That question may be answered soon in a U.S. District Court in New York, as a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by the World Wrestling Federation against the Parents Television Council moves ahead.
The WWF says it was defamed by the PTC, which has claimed-falsely, according to the WWF-that four children were killed by other children who imitated moves they saw on UPN’s “WWF Smackdown!”
Furthermore, according to the WWF suit, the PTC used these claims, as well as other allegedly false assertions about advertiser defections from “Smackdown!,” to pressure big advertisers to leave the show and to bolster a fund-raising campaign for itself.
The PTC, which currently is also pressuring “Boston Public” advertisers to quit the school show, counters that its actions are protected by the First Amendment and that the lawsuit could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.
In making its arguments against programming with violence or sexual content, the organization has powerful allies, including U.S. Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who have been vocal opponents of Hollywood’s so-called “coarsening” effects on society. Both senators are on the PTC advisory board.
The WWF may be more susceptible to the effects of the PTC’s pressure-the-advertiser techniques than other TV programs because the WWF maintains its own sales force and sells its own advertising time, typically keeping around 80 percent of a program’s inventory for itself.
Lost advertising revenues that the WWF attributes to the PTC’s actions go “over the seven-figure mark,” said Stuart Snyder, president and chief operating officer of WWF Entertainment.
Recently, U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin dismissed the PTC’s attempt to have the WWF lawsuit thrown out on First Amendment grounds, saying the case could go forward because a “reasonable juror” might conclude that L. Brent Bozell III, PTC president, had known that the child deaths his organization was attributing to the WWF actually had occurred before the show debuted.
The judge also said that if the PTC knowingly used false and defamatory information to raise money and pressure advertisers, that speech is not protected. Moreover, the judge gave credence to the WWF’s contention that the PTC’s fund-raising activities constitute “commercial” speech that isn’t protected to the same degree as other discourse.
Mark Honig, PTC’s executive director and one of the defendants in the WWF suit, declined to discuss the pending litigation specifically, but he did say this is the first time the PTC has been taken to court by a target of one of its campaigns, and he reiterated the organization’s position that the suit could have a chilling effect. He said the PTC’s “Boston Public” campaign thus far has convinced two advertisers to pull out of the show.
Mr. Honig also said his organization stands by its recently issued report on the TV genre that the WWF dominates.
That report, “Pro Wrestling: Less Offensive, But Still Offensive,” finds “Smackdown!” and the other televised wrestling programs less violent, with fewer incidents of sexual content and coarse language, than in spring 2000. But the report contends wrestling programs are still inappropriate for children.
The report also describes four violent deaths-children killed by other children who allegedly were using the “clothesline,” the “jackknife powerbomb” or other such moves supposedly learned by watching televised wrestling.
These are the kinds of assertions that have been taken to the advertisers, according to the WWF and Jerry McDevitt, its attorney in the lawsuit, who calls PTC a “terrorist” group.
The suit, which will ask for several million dollars in damages, also will “make some very interesting law in terms of how programmers, the networks and advertisers can deal with these terrorist groups that set themselves up as some kind of finely tuned calibrator of what we should all watch,” Mr. McDevitt said.
He also charged that the PTC shows up unannounced at advertisers’ shareholder meetings. “They go in and they make these defamatory, false statements,” Mr. McDevitt said. “They did it at MCI, made statements that `Smackdown!’ has caused four kids to kill other kids. They state that in the most polemical of terms, as an absolute, crystal-clear fact, and then they tell MCI that unless you withdraw your advertising, we’re going to hold you responsible.”
That MCI shareholder meeting took place a year ago. A subsequent communication from MCI WorldCom is one of many declarations from former and potential sponsors of “Smackdown!” that is quoted on the PTC’s Web site. That communication reads in part: “MCI WorldCom has suspended all advertising in this program. We apologize that we did not take responsibility in this matter sooner.”
Other advertisers that, according to the PTC, said they would no longer advertise on “Smackdown!” include AT&T, M&M Mars and the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. Though no trial date has yet been set, the WWF and the PTC are scheduled to be back in court on June 22 to begin the discovery phase of the suit. The WWF’s attorney said the WWF has no interest in pursuing mediation and intends to take the case to trial.