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Q&A; With President Clinton : ‘The V-Chip May Simply Give Viewers Another Way to Vote’

Question: Ted Turner warned that the adoption of the V-chip and a ratings system is going to cost the entertainment industry some money. Do you think he’s right about that? And in any event, is it a good trade-off for that industry as well as for the country?

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Answer: Well, I don’t know whether he’s right or not. I think it is definitely a good trade-off because it’s an historic new compact between the entertainment industry, all the players involved in television, and the parents and the families of America. And all the government did was act as a catalyst by getting the V-chip into the telecommunications bill and then to bring these people together.

I was really impressed that they all came, that all these entities were represented at the highest level. And what I think will happen is that it will cost the industry a significant amount of money, I think, just to figure out how to implement this rating system. It’s far more complex than movies just because there are just so many more--first of all, just the sheer volume and the diversity of programming will mean it’s a more complex problem. So it will cost a lot of money to go through a legitimate process, set it up and implement it and then disseminate it.

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After that, I’m not so sure it will cost them a lot of money. I think what will happen is the V-chip may simply give viewers another way to vote. In some ways, it will be more accurate than the Nielsen ratings. And not every intelligent program succeeds even now. Not every violent television program succeeds even now. And certainly not every children’s television program succeeds now. So what I think will happen is that the V-chip will be another indicator of where the public is. And I think they’ll respond to that.

Over the long run, I’ll be quite surprised if it does cost them any long-term profits, as opposed to the front-end cost of setting up the system and whatever the cost of maintaining it is, because if the viewers vote with the V-chip the way the Nielsen ratings and other indices drive programming today, it will change the programming, hopefully for the better. But it won’t have anything to do with long-term profitability, I wouldn’t think.

Q: What kind of a role do you foresee for yourself, for the White House, in monitoring the implementation of this system and making sure it’s done right?

A: Well, the first thing I think is that the government should not be involved in the process by which the system is developed and then implemented. Just like we’re not involved in the movie ratings. I don’t believe we should be involved.

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I think the industry, if you look at the movie ratings or even if you look at the advisories that we see now on television before certain programs, I think it’s clear that once the industry decides to do this and hold itself publicly accountable, that there’s a very high probability that a good job will be done on this.

What I think I can do is to, first of all, receive the results of their efforts since they sort of kicked it off here. If they’d like to come back, I invited them to come back and make a report to me and to bring in the members of the Congress, and I’m trying to keep this in a very nonpolitical way.

So one of the things we might be able to do is to highlight the work once it’s done, to emphasize it, and then to make sure that we do everything we can to explain to people how the V-chip works and how they should access it as they buy new televisions. And for those who do not have the V-chip--and for several years there will be millions of Americans who won’t have it--to encourage them still to become familiar with the rating system and to use it at home anyway.

Q: Is there a place for jawboning or exhortation about overall quality in programming?

A: Well, I think that’s the next follow-up. The V-chip gives parents the right to keep bad things from happening. It’s an elimination tool. We also take the Children’s Television Act mandate very seriously, and that was sort of the second part of our discussion today. So, in addition to following up in the way I just described on the V-chip--because that’s mostly for the industry to do--we will continue to work with them to try to implement the spirit as well as the letter of the Children’s Television Act to try to improve both the quality and the quantity of children’s programming, again in ways that won’t hurt them financially.

So that’s the other affirmative obligation I think we have to keep pushing for appropriate quantities and qualities of programming for children. I don’t have any specific mandates.

Q: But in terms of adult programming, do you see a need to. . . ?

A: Well, what I think will happen there, we will continue to have the reports on an annual basis of the violent content and other problems there, and we’ll continue to have studies on it. But my own view is that advocacy is one thing, censorship is another. There may come a time when we need some more advocacy, but nothing should be done to detract from the importance of this meeting or to distract the industry from the enormous task before them of developing and implementing these guidelines.

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This rating system is going to be a big job, and from my point of view, it is by far the most important thing they could be doing now. So I don’t want to do anything to cloud that path.

Q: Last year Sen. [Bob] Dole [R-Kan.] went to Hollywood and gave that famous speech describing some movies and television programs as “nightmares of depravity.” Do you think he went overboard? Was that an unproductive way to go about accomplishing these aims?

A: All I can tell you is how I think it should be done. I have questioned for years and years, including in the presidential campaign of 1992, the impact of media on the culture in America because I do think it has an impact, and I think excessive violence and other destructive behavior, particularly when it’s exposed to young children in huge volumes over long periods of time, cannot help but affect the way we look at the world. On the other hand, you don’t want to totally impair the creative process, and you don’t want to say that nobody can ever produce a violent movie, no one can ever produce any kind of show that reflects the world as it is.

So what I have tried to do is to challenge the industry to say when I thought there were things that were wrong but to recognize that we have to go forward in a partnership and that they had to take the lead; that we have a country with a 1st Amendment. We don’t want politicians basically saying what should and shouldn’t be on television or should or shouldn’t be in the movies, but people who are elected to represent all the people, I think, can properly say when the things are out of balance and they ought to be put back in balance.

So my view is that the president’s jawboning is a very important function of this office. It always has been. I think that we all know that there are limits to the ability of short-term market considerations to promote the common good for America and to build a united future.

And I believe in the market. I’ve done everything I could to develop the power of the American market and to project the power of the American market overseas, including for the entertainment industry. But, you know, whether it’s environment laws or food safety laws or worker safety laws or the minimum wage or whatever, there are many ways in our country where if we recognize that we want to have a good country that’s growing together and a healthy environment with a good future, we have to change the incentives and make sure we’re always operating out of our core values.

And I think that’s a legitimate thing for the president to do. But the president must also know what not to do. And in the case of the movie business or the television business, you have to draw the line at censorship or trying to do something that I’m not qualified to do, which is say what should show and what--you know, make all these individual judgments.


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