Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg could have used a remote.
Less than halfway into a five-minute clip of violent TV excerpts being shown to a packed Senate hearing Tuesday, the New Jersey Democrat became visibly fed up.
“We’ve seen enough,” he said, after scenes from “NCIS,” “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” played. “I think we all know what’s out there is disgusting.”
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who chaired the session on the effect of TV violence on children, agreed to pull the plug.
But though there was a consensus that such scenes were violent and inappropriate for children, sharp disagreements broke out over what, if anything, the government should do about them. The Federal Communications Commission can fine broadcast stations for indecency but has no power to regulate violent programming.
Rockefeller wants to change that. He announced plans to introduce legislation next month to allow federal regulation of “indecent, violent and profane content” on broadcast, cable and satellite TV, excoriating Hollywood for “a never-ending race to the bottom” fueled by corporate greed.
“We now know that the entertainment and broadcasting industry has proven itself unable and unwilling to police itself,” Rockefeller said. “I fear that graphic violent programming has become so pervasive and has been shown to be so harmful, we are left with no choice but to have the government step in.”
But Lautenberg and several other members of the Senate Commerce Committee questioned the constitutionality of such a move, highlighting the obstacles Rockefeller faces in pushing his bill through Congress.
“It is not something that is easily regulated,” said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The same concerns were raised by House members at a hearing last week on media’s effect on children.
Rockefeller proposed similar legislation in 2005 that went nowhere. But he’s now in the majority, with the power to convene hearings. The video of violent scenes was prepared at Rockefeller’s request by the Parents Television Council, a media watchdog group, and he brought in two professors to testify about the damaging effect that violent TV shows can have on children.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who missed Tuesday’s hearing because of travel delays, has indicated support for Rockefeller’s legislation. And the issue got a boost this spring when an FCC report concluded that Hollywood had failed to shield children from violent shows and Congress should authorize government action.
Hollywood is clearly worried.
The industry is facing the possible action without Jack Valenti, the former head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, who died in April. Valenti, who continued to work on the TV violence issue in retirement, is credited with helping derail calls for tougher government regulation on violence in 2005, thanks in part to his close ties to Inouye and Stevens. Instead, he helped persuade Congress to let the industry try to educate parents about TV ratings and blocking technology.
This time, the four major networks, along with the MPAA, the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., have hired Harvard Law professor Laurence H. Tribe, a leading constitutional scholar. Tribe testified at Tuesday’s hearing that any law allowing regulation of TV violence would be thrown out by the courts.
Peter Liguori, president of entertainment at Fox Television, told senators that the industry was considering making descriptors on TV shows, such as V for violence, more detailed and consistent. Giving parents more information about programs and teaching them how to block violent programs was best, he said.
“Should we as parents do more ... to minimize our kid’s exposure to TV violence? Absolutely,” Liguori said. “But this is the job of parents, not of government.”