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Premium Cable Channels Adopt Content Labels : Television: HBO, Showtime, the Movie Channel and Cinemax will provide advisories on violence, sex and offensive language beginning this month.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At a time when television is under pressure to reduce violence, four major pay-TV channels are instituting a labeling system to warn viewers about the content of every program they offer--but not only with regard to mayhem. The advisories also will cover nudity, sex and language.

Cable executives deny that the move is in response to congressional pressure and say it will not affect what gets programmed on HBO, Showtime, the Movie Channel and Cinemax. Nor will movies or programs be edited, bleeped or altered in any way to change the rating.

They describe it as a voluntary effort to provide more information to their subscribers, especially to parents trying to limit their children’s exposure to violence, sex and offensive language.

The standardized, 10-category advisory system will go into effect Friday on HBO and Cinemax (which are jointly owned) and later this month on Showtime and the Movie Channel (which also are jointly owned).

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“I think that because the concern over violence on television is occurring simultaneously, this could be perceived as a reaction to it,” said McAdory Lipscomb, executive vice president of Showtime. “If we had not been providing advisories for years, it could be construed that way. But the thought is simply that, with so many images coming across our television screens today, better information about those images is needed.”

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Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who has led the crusade to pressure television executives to reduce violence on TV without direct government involvement, believes “it is helpful to provide viewers with more information about what is on television, especially for parents trying to guide their children’s viewing habits,” a spokesman said. “But labeling is no substitute for a general reduction in glamorized violence.”

He added that Simon will continue to focus on monitoring what actually gets shown on TV in an effort to limit the amount of violence. Simon has no intention of lobbying other broadcasters or cable channels to adopt a similar advisory system, nor would he frown on its implementation elsewhere, the spokesman said.

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Under the pay networks’ new ratings system, there are four categories of violence: mild (MV), violent (V) and graphic (GV), with a separate category for rape (RP), because the companies have heard from their subscribers over the years that sexual violence is particularly offensive to some viewers.

Sex is divided into three categories: brief nudity (BN), nudity (N) and strong sexual content (SC).

Potentially offensive language gets two labels: adult (AL) or graphic (GL). And there is a more general and all-encompassing category of “adult content” (AC).

As many as five labels could be applied to a movie or program; each will be appear on the air and in program guides. For example, the NC-17 movie “The Bad Lieutenant,” starring Harvey Keitel, will get the grand slam of parental warnings: GL, GV, RP, N, SC. “Free Willy,” a PG-rated family movie, will be labeled MV because of a couple of scenes of mild violence.

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Each company will label its own programs separately, so it is conceivable that the same movie might get a GV on Showtime and the Movie Channel and a V on HBO and Cinemax.

“It is possible that we would rank something different than HBO, but we both recognize our dual responsibility to provide information to our subscribers about what is graphic or perhaps unsuitable for children, and we think the common language we’ve developed will provide an acceptable parameter,” Showtime’s Lipscomb said.

He added that the two companies decided to join forces because it made sense to provide a common and consistent language for viewers of pay television.

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For Showtime and the Movie Channel, the implementation of this advisory system represents a fairly large step in warning viewers about what they are about to see. In the past, they have simply provided the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings on movies and a “parental discretion” tag on their own adult-oriented programs. HBO and Cinemax have been providing viewers with a more detailed description of their programs’ violent or sexual content for many years, but nothing as specific as the new plan.

Dave Baldwin, vice president of program planning at HBO, explained that a team of screeners and programmers has been in place for years to evaluate movies and programs in this manner. If there’s an argument over whether something ought to get the “brief nudity” or the stronger “nudity” label, Baldwin said, “we err on the side of caution and just go with N. This isn’t rocket science. It’s just informational.”

The “graphic violence” label will be reserved “for the really tough stuff, the high-impact kind of thing--dismemberment, gunshots, blood and gore,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin said that the “graphic language” category is for presentations with constant salty language, such as HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam.”

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Strong sexual content is reserved for movies with graphic sexual depictions, such as Zalman King’s “Red Shoe Diaries” on Showtime. “Indecent Proposal,” for all its sexual innuendo, gets only a BN for brief nudity, Baldwin said.

He added that many PG-13 movies also will be labeled BN because they include a brief glimpse of a topless woman. Many parents have complained that they have let their children watch such films in the afternoon, unaware of what they consider objectionable nudity. This system will help them avoid that, Baldwin explained.

As examples of what viewers can expect, “Rising Sun,” the Sean Connery thriller from last year, received: adult content, adult language, violence, nudity and strong sexual content. The political comedy “Dave” will get labels for adult content and language.

Lipscomb said that neither Showtime nor HBO has been talking to the basic cable channels (such as MTV, A&E; and USA) about adopting the ratings system, but he said the cable industry in general is committed to coming up with some kind of advisory system. One problem is that basic cable has been focusing solely on the question of violence, not of sexual or language content. Another is that basic cable, like its broadcast counterparts, has been more resistant to getting specific in its parental advisories for fear of losing advertisers who might be skittish about sponsoring programs clearly labeled as having violent or sexual content.

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