February 29, 1996

TV Executives Reach Broad Accord on Rating Violent Shows


WASHINGTON -- After years of denouncing the idea as unworkable and an infringement on free speech, executives from throughout the television industry have reached agreement on the broad outlines of a violence ratings system that can be used with new technology to let people automatically block out violent shows.

The new ratings system would be similar to that now used by the movie industry, and is being developed in large part by the Motion Picture Association of America.

But television executives say that they have not begun to resolve many of the most vexing details, like how to distinguish between serious dramas and fist-packed action shows like "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers," and that the new ratings will not come into use until sometime next year.

The new system may also be weaker than the movie industry's in some respects. The biggest difference is that shows will be rated by the individual networks and independent stations that broadcast them; in contrast, movies are rated by a central board that is independent of particular movie studios.

The new plan will be unveiled on Thursday just before top executives from the entertainment industry meet with President Clinton, and it comes in response to a provision in the recently passed Telecommunications Act that requires television manufacturers to install a "violence chip," or "V-chip," in each new set.

Barry Diller, a former chairman of the Fox television network and now chairman of Silver King Productions, an owner of television stations, said, "This is an industry that is trying to forestall what it considers to be a worse alternative" -- that is, a ratings system devised by the Federal Communications Commission that the industry would be under intense political pressure to adopt.

Clinton has put heavy pressure on broadcasters in the last few weeks to come up on their own with a violence rating system, which is essential in order for a V-chip to block out violent programs.

The new plan has generated considerable turmoil both within the industry and within the theater of Washington politics. Congressional Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, have insisted that industry executives meet with him and others on Capitol Hill before they go the White House on Thursday morning.

Many Republicans are irritated at the industry, because they sided with broadcasters in opposing the V-chip and exposed themselves to potentially heavy criticism on an issue with strong popular resonance. Now, to the frustration of many Republican lawmakers, Clinton is poised to capture the spotlight as a champion of family values over Hollywood commercialism.

As a result, more than 20 top industry executives -- including Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner and the heads of ABC, CBS and NBC -- plan to travel by chartered bus to Capitol Hill early Thursday morning and then climb aboard the same bus for a two-hour meeting with Clinton and a gala briefing afterward before the press and television cameras.

White House officials were exuberant Wednesday, saying the agreement marked a vindication for Clinton, who in his State of the Union Message last month called for the industry to develop a ratings system.

"What the president is interested in here is providing parents and families with the tools they need to make decisions for themselves," said Don Baer, a White House spokesman.

The Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole, tried to navigate both sides of the issue Wednesday. Dole, a presidential candidate, sharply attacked Hollywood studios last year, saying they were pandering to crass commercialism with the violent shows they produced, but fought against the V-chip proposal during debate on the communications bill.

On Wednesday he praised the entertainment industry for adopting what he emphasized was a "voluntary" rating system but said the industry had not done enough to develop programming that parents would be "proud to let their children watch."

Television executives said Wednesday that they still objected to the new law, which would have the FCC develop a ratings system if the industry failed to come up with one of its own. The law does not require television broadcasters to actually rate their programs; instead, it merely requires them to transmit the rating information in their signal if they do rate them.

The new ratings system will have to be applied to hundreds of thousands of hours of programming each year, compared with about a thousand movies distributed each year.

But the bigger problem is how the rating categories will be defined, an issue on which there is intense disagreement and anxiety within the industry.

"This will not be an effort focused on statutory categories," said one industry executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We're going to come up with categories that we think make sense. What makes it vexing are the bad effects of an improper rating system. If you come up with a violence label that is attached to medical programming, you could end up with a show like 'ER' getting rated."

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