Lieberman blasted by industry over ratings

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Entertainment industry executives last week strongly rejected Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s proposal for a universal ratings system for television, movies, video games and music, and the senator appears to have little support from colleagues on his Senate Governmental Affairs panel.
That could spell trouble for his vision of a uniform ratings scheme that would be adopted voluntarily by the industry.
William Baldwin, president of the Creative Coalition, a Hollywood group, warned that uniform ratings are a “one size fits all” approach to varied forms of entertainment.
“The solution should not come in the form of regulation or any direct or indirect form of censorship,” he said at a hearing July 25 before the committee. But he also conceded that the movie ratings system is not perfect and is “ripe for reform.”
“We’re dealing with vastly disparate art forms,” said Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. “The video game is interactive. Movies, music, television broadcasts are not. Music is for the ear … the rest of us are not.”
He asked, “Where is this `Cyclopean’ eye-this all-seeing eye-that’s going to oversee all of this?”
GOP Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, ranking minority member on the panel, warned that Congress risks violating the First Amendment by regulating media content.
“There’s no law requiring these ratings systems,” he said. “If we penalize people for not doing it the way we think is right, they can quit doing it altogether, and I don’t think that that would be a good thing.”
Universal ratings did receive endorsements from some witnesses, including Professor Dale Kunkel of the University of California, Santa Barbara, a prominent researcher on the effects of entertainment on children.
“The lack of consistency across the media and the ratings formats makes it incredibly difficult to make sense of it all,” Professor Kunkel said. For example, a media product containing extreme violence would be rated R if it were a movie, TV-MA if it were a TV show and M if it were a home video game, and would carry a parental advisory if it were a CD, he said.
Sen. Lieberman, a longtime champion of family values and a likely presidential candidate in 2004, took control of the committee when Senate power shifted earlier this year to the Democrats, and he quickly broadened its focus to include media issues, which usually fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce Committee.
At the hearing last week, one witness-Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Washington think tank Cato Institute-questioned why the panel was tackling these subjects in the first place. The senator said he wanted to provide a forum for debate on the role of government in protecting children from explicit and graphic media images.
The Connecticut lawmaker has supported legislation in the past that mandated creation of a universal code and hasn’t ruled out a legislative approach again, although he said that isn’t his goal now.
“I want to warn the industry that the best way to invite censorship is to disengage in this discussion,” he said.
He cited a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released the day of the hearing that found 40 percent of parents think a uniform ratings scheme would be more useful than the existing systems. Seventeen percent thought it would be less useful.
Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., introduced legislation last week that arms the Federal Trade Commission with authority to penalize movie studios, record labels and video game companies that peddle violent, sexual or profane content to youngsters.
The bill is identical to legislation that Sen. Lieberman has already offered in the upper chamber.