Twelve days ago, capping a five-year crusade against television violence, Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) finally scored a coup when President Bush signed legislation granting the networks, cable operators and independent stations three years of immunity from federal antitrust prosecution so they could meet voluntarily to establish new guidelines for TV violence.
Thus far, however, this “voluntary” legislation has produced no volunteers.
The TV industry is publicly adopting a polite wait-and-see approach to the matter. Companies are either refusing comment or declaring their willingness to attend a meeting without expressing any intention of calling one. No one is conceding that new standards are needed.
In fact, the only immediate action taken by the organizations involved has been to toss the hot potato to their lawyers to determine whether such a meeting would leave their clients open to lawsuits over First Amendment issues.
James Popham, vice president and general counsel of the Assn. of Independent Television Stations, said that worry over such legal action accounts for the industry’s reticence about Simon’s measure. In 1976, a lawsuit by Hollywood guilds toppled TV’s so-called “family viewing policy,” which established sex-and-violence guidelines for the 7-9 p.m. period. Even though the networks and the National Assn. of Broadcasters maintained that they had adopted the policy voluntarily, a federal judge ruled that it had in fact been foisted upon them in a secret meeting with the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
“There has been significant litigation in the past, and I think everyone wants to study the new law as thoroughly and as carefully and as deliberately as possible,” Popham said. “Nobody wants to get burned, and you can get burned very badly in that sort of litigation.”
When asked who should take charge of organizing a meeting, spokesmen for the networks and other TV officials pointed to the National Assn. of Broadcasters (NAB). To date, however, the NAB has gone no further than informal discussions with its membership, and has assigned its lawyers to explore the legal ramifications before getting further involved.
In an interview this week, Simon said that he remains confident that the TV industry will soon initiate a meeting. He hopes it will lead to something beyond a vague promise to lessen TV violence; he wants a specific list of do’s and don’ts. “As one crude example, (under current industry standards) no one may commit suicide on television--that kind of thing,” Simon said.
“I think, initially, I’m just going to see if someone in the industry takes the ball and starts to run with it,” Simon said. “If something doesn’t happen within a few weeks, I will initiate some kind of meeting, and simply discuss how we will proceed on the thing.
“Ideally, I would prefer that, without the interference by the federal government, that they would on their own get together and establish what a number of other countries have--in fact, most countries have. We have the most violent television of any country on the face of the Earth, with the possible exception of Japan.”
And if the industry fails to act? “If the television industry refuses to establish standards, then obviously we look at other options, but I don’t know what those options are,” Simon said.
“I don’t want to go down the path of censorship,” he said, “but I think we shouldn’t hide our heads in the sand and say there isn’t a problem. The question is: How do we address the problem?”
So far, TV companies are not acknowledging that there is a problem--at least, not with their programming.
John Wolfe, a spokesman for the National Cable Television Assn., said that his group “did not oppose the legislation” and was discussing the issue with its members. He argued, however, that programming on basic cable is no more violent than network programming. "(NBC’s) ‘Hunter’ is an extremely violent show, and that’s on the network,” he said.
Wolfe added that the legislation was equally unnecessary for pay cable’s movie channels, since buying the channels is optional, and cable services can provide lock boxes if parents want to prevent children from watching.
HBO, Showtime/The Movie Channel, Fox Broadcasting Co. and CBS would not comment on the new law. ABC and NBC said that they would attend a meeting on violence if somebody should hold one, but stressed that they are satisfied with their existing standards for TV violence.
“We’re comfortable with our standards; we’re not considering moving them,” said Alan Gerson, vice president of program standards and policy at NBC. “Our corporate decision is, we don’t believe that this bill is necessary with respect to our company.”
Gerson said that NBC was in discussions with Simon about a meeting and would attend, but with the caveat that the Big Three networks would take the role of “teacher” for cable operators and independent stations, rather than revising their own standards for violence.
“There is an unfortunate tendency (for the press) to say that the networks have been given a chance to get together to discuss standards in violence, which is tremendously incorrect and misleading,” Gerson said. “The networks have been asked to meet with other segments of the program production industry to share what they do and how they do it.
“I think any fair and accurate analysis of the 35 or 40 signals that come through most of the television sets in this country would show that, both in the intensity and the circumstances, that violence on the three networks is a far tamer thing. We don’t use a lot of the techniques that other people do--you don’t see gouts of blood exploding from humans, you usually don’t see the impact of violence, although you may see the result. . . . We try to ‘get the red out.’ ”
Simon did not agree with Gerson’s view. “I would say they (the networks) are wrong--the biggest problem is with the networks,” he said. “I thought it was interesting that the cable companies were more receptive to my bill than the networks.”