Four senators scheduled a press conference Tuesday to unveil an agreement between the television industry and parents’ groups on a new system of rating TV shows, only to announce instead that the agreement remained out of reach.
“Yesterday afternoon we were told by the family groups that they could sign an agreement,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview afterward. “Earlier this afternoon, broadcasters said, ‘We will have an agreement, and you can call everybody over.’ ”
But the deal had unraveled by the time reporters arrived. TV industry executives who were in the meetings accused the parents’ groups of reneging on a guarantee that they would not promptly reopen the deal and seek a better one.
Before that, the two sides had agreed to augment the current, age-based ratings system with symbols denoting sex, violence, profane language and suggestive dialogue.
The television executives, in one of their final concessions, had also agreed to a designation of “fantasy violence” for cartoon shows.
In return, the TV industry demanded assurances that it would not have to renegotiate the ratings system every six months.
“The children’s groups suddenly upped the ante, raising issues we thought were settled,” one TV executive said. “The primary reason the deal didn’t get done Tuesday is that they suddenly weren’t willing to give sufficient assurances” that they would not support other legislative measures regarding TV ratings.
“We can’t comment on that,” responded Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, one of the parents’ groups. “We’re hoping we can get back to the table tomorrow.”
Several sources involved in the discussions between the networks, the parents’ groups and lawmakers said politics was playing a major role in the final days of negotiations.
“The politicians involved in this issue are jockeying to see who’s going to get credit for a settlement,” one congressional source said, “and the children’s groups are playing right into that.”
“John McCain and [Vice President] Al Gore both plan to run for president in the year 2000,” noted another source involved in the talks. “Both men want to be able to announce the agreement between the children’s groups and the TV networks.”
It was Gore’s endorsement of the parents’ groups’ position last Thursday, after the Clinton administration had declined to take sides, that led the TV executives to abruptly end the talks for several days.
Sources said the vice president wanted to play a role in any announcement of an agreement to change the TV ratings system, which the industry adopted in January under pressure from the administration.
As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which regulates television, McCain has supported the parents’ groups and exerted strong pressure on the TV networks to beef up their system or have Congress do it for them.
He recently warned the TV executives that he would introduce legislation establishing a content-based ratings system if they did not voluntarily accept such a system by Tuesday.
Some sources said they believed that McCain “jumped the gun” with the Tuesday press conference because he feared Gore would announce a deal today during network talk-show appearances from Nashville, Tenn., where he will preside over the sixth annual Gore family reunion conference.
“I called the press conference because I thought we had a deal,” McCain said. “Everything I’ve done on this issue has been bipartisan.”
By contrast, he noted that only Democratic senators had been invited to Gore’s meeting last week with the parents’ groups.
“The first I heard on this issue from the White House was last week,” McCain said. “The vice president seems to be interested in taking credit; the credit goes to the family groups and broadcasters.”