Senator to Call for Vote on Bill to Limit TV Violence


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) believes the TV industry just doesn’t get it when it comes to criticism of the parental guidance ratings implemented this year. “Folks in Hollywood do not understand the depth of the opposition to the present system,” McCain said.

To help convey the message, McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which regulates television, plans to call for a committee vote Thursday on a bill that would restrict violent TV programming to late-night hours when children are less likely to be watching.

McCain is not even in favor of the “safe-harbor” measure written by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) but hopes that bringing it into the spotlight will force television executives to the bargaining table with critics who want the industry to add specific labels for sex, language and violence to the generic ratings currently provided.


“I would hope that [moving Hollings’ bill] results in serious negotiations about content-based ratings that children’s advocacy groups can support,” McCain said in an interview. If, as expected, the Commerce Committee approves Hollings’ bill, McCain would play a key role when the bill comes up for full Senate vote.

McCain, who held hearings on the controversial guidelines in February, is angry about the industry’s delay in convening meetings it promised with children’s advocacy groups, and about recent speeches to broadcasters by Jack Valenti, chief architect of the current ratings system, and Eddie Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

After appearing conciliatory at the Senate hearing, Valenti vowed later that no changes would be made until “parents ask for them,” and Fritts called the industry’s congressional critics “the governing elite” who can’t solve problems in society.

Despite the bellicose posturing, the TV industry today is divided over what to do in the face of criticism that one cable executive calls “a public relations blood bath.”

In a private meeting about 10 days ago, Valenti, Fritts and National Cable Television Assn. President Decker Anstrom told one of their chief congressional antagonists, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), that industry executives would decide by the end of May about making changes in their 4-month-old system.

NBC, CBS and ABC, along with the Hollywood studios, fear that using more detailed labels that give information about sexual and violent content would stigmatize shows among advertisers.


The other partners in the ratings coalition--cable networks and local broadcast stations--have less of a stake in how the controversy is resolved. Pay-cable outlets such as HBO and Showtime already provide content advisories, and basic-cable networks are supported by subscriber fees as well as advertising.

Some cable industry executives have told members of Congress that they would add content-based labels if it were up to them to make the decision for the entire industry. But, said one cable executive, “Cable doesn’t want to make the leap alone.”

So far, the TV industry has not decided how to respond to its critics on this issue. The executive committee that formulated the system decided on Monday to begin meeting with the American Psychological Assn., the American Medical Assn., children’s groups and other opponents over the next several weeks. But how much impact their views will have is unclear.

“Whom do we surrender to?” one industry executive asked, referring to the opposition. “There are a number of congressmen and children’s [advocates] who’ve found a forum in the media with this issue. If we satisfy one of them, will that satisfy them all? If we do S, V and L, will somebody want us to have 1, 2 and 3 [to indicate the degree of severity]?”

Some network executives who have opposed ratings all along on 1st Amendment grounds even said they hope the Hollings bill passes--so they can challenge it in court.

Meanwhile, sources close to Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch say he is ready to bolt from the other broadcast networks, moving to provide S, V and L labels on Fox shows to win points from a Congress he is lobbying for approval of his direct broadcast satellite plan and other business ventures. “He doesn’t consider [adding content ratings] as important to him as other issues,” one source said.


Some people involved in the discussions believe the industry will offer some changes in the system in time for a June 4 public hearing that has been scheduled by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC can approve the industry’s system or impanel an advisory group to come up with another voluntary system.

But others believe that the industry may try to ride out the criticism without making significant changes, arguing that the public doesn’t really want content-based ratings because viewers haven’t been calling TV stations clamoring for them.