[This is the Washington Ribbon

02/29/96 - 10:27 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

TV chiefs to give Clinton violence ratings

WASHINGTON - After years of complaining it would violate free speech and cut into revenues, television executives are assuring President Clinton they'll devise a system to rate programs for violent content.

About 30 top executives were meeting with Clinton at the White House Thursday to pledge support for a ratings system, which may include sexual content.

The pledge comes under pressure from Congress and with the television and entertainment industries having become an election-year target for both parties.

Clinton also was expected to discuss with the TV executives his interest in requiring stations to air at least three hours a week of educational programs for children. The broadcasting industry is opposed to this.

"The president believes we need to improve both the quality and the quantity of programming that is aimed at enriching the lives of children in America," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Wednesday.

Though the TV executives envision a system along the lines of the one used for movies, they are a long way from agreement on whether cartoons and news magazines should be rated and how to rate soap operas.

The hard work in resolving these issues, developing ratings symbols and criteria, comes over the next six months, executives say. News and sports programs won't be rated.

To get there, a task force of TV executives will work with Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. The TV industry wants to have a ratings system in place by January. The system would cover both broadcast and cable programming.

McCurry said the White House is "very pleased" by the steps the industry has taken so far.

A new law urges - but doesn't force - the TV industry to rate programs. The ratings, however, are critical to another requirement of the law: that new TV sets be equipped with a so-called v-chip to recognize programs electronically rated for violent content. With a remote-control-like device, a person can block such programs from appearing on the TV screen. Without the ratings, the v-chip is useless.

"This rating system will trigger some kind of blocking technology," CBS President Peter Lund said Thursday on CBS' This Morning. He added, "The good thing is the entire industry has come together. Everything you see on TV, news and sports excepted, will be rated."

Under the law, if the industry doesn't create its own ratings system in a year, then a government-appointed panel of industry executives would. Network executives say they didn't want to risk that and reversed their stance against ratings. They also indicated the reversal makes political and legal sense for the industry.

Critics say the networks reversed course only to curry favor on Capitol Hill, where TV broadcasters are battling plans by Senate budget writers to make them pay billions for extra channels they'll need for high-quality digital television.

And, still others say ratings and the v-chip are not enough. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), former Education Secretary William Bennett, and eight religious groups, including the Christian Coalition, are calling for broadcast and cable networks to adopt "higher programming standards" and program a "family viewing hour" during prime time.

Though not part of this fray, the Center for Media Education also says ratings and a v-chip are not enough. What's the point "if kids turn on the TV set on Saturday morning and all the programs are being blocked out," asked Jeffrey Chester, the center's executive director. The center wants TV stations to air more educational shows and they also want broadcast and cable networks to rate cartoons and other children's programs.

Others executives taking part in the meetings include: Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner and its president, Michael Ovitz; Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin; Fox Broadcasting Co. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, NBC President Robert Wright; CBS President Peter Lund; and Tele-Communications Inc. Chairman John Malone.

By The Associated Press