Battle brewing over V-chip

The entertainment industry and Congress are drawing battle lines over imminent legislation requiring insertion in new TV sets of computer chips enabling parents to block out programs rated excessively violent.

House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said Thursday he will offer the V-chip bill within a week. Markey made the announcement at the close of a hearing in which the American Medical Assn. endorsed a tough government crackdown on TV violence, and lawmakers lambasted corporateadvertisers for declining to defend their ad practices before Congress.

Under Markey’s proposal, with the press of a button, parents could block all V-rated programs for an entire day, or perhaps up to a week. Network violence advisories announced earlier this month are “a warning but not a defense (for parents),” said Markey. “The V-chip is a defense, and parents want a defense.”

The Markey proposal has been getting a cool reception from network heads and program producers, and is sure to be a main topic of discussion at the TV Violence Summit Monday in Los Angeles.

Motion Picture Assn. of America prez Jack Valenti said in a speech Thursday that while MPAA supports the idea of allowing parents to “blot out individual programs” as a means of parental “empowerment,” it opposes enabling them to do so with a day’s or week’s worth of programming.

“Parents have the responsibility for setting standards of conduct for their children, which includes sternly monitoring what their children read and watch,” said Valenti. “That is a parental duty, a family area into which governments, agencies or self-appointed groups should never, ever, intrude.” Though Valenti’s warning will play well with the creative community, momentum seems to favor Markey in Congress, where lawmakers’ frenzy over TV violence shows no sign of abating.

Markey flatly predicted the V-block “is going to happen,” and he drew bipartisan support for the proposal at the hearing.

Also backing the V-chip was Dr. Robert McAfee, AMA president-elect.

McAfee dismissed suggestions from Betsy Frank, senior veepee of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, that a V-chip borders on censorship. “This is not censorship. It’s parenting,” said McAfee.

McAfee went a step further, calling for FCC hearings on media violence and the establishment of TV violence regulations. Stations that exceed the violence regs should face fines or license revocation, McAfee claimed.

Much of the hearing was devoted to the issue of corporate sponsorship of violent TV programs, but of the top 10 advertisers in the U.S., only AT&T agreed to send a witness to testify on the company’s ad-buying guidelines.

Markey was incensed that companies such as McDonald’s, General Motors, Sears and Philip Morris refused to send a witness. He accused top U.S. companies of “attempting to wash their hands of any responsibility for the violence on the screen. This is outrageous and will not be tolerated.”

AT&T VP Richard Martin said his company closely screens programs in advance to avoid being associated with shows containing vulgar language and excessive violence.

However, Martin was forced to concede that the company is “not infallible” after William Abbott, head of the National Foundation to Improve TV, noted that AT&T blurbs appeared recently in the ABC telepic “Murder in the Heartland” and violence-laden films such as “Another 48 HRS.” and “Total Recall.”

Saatchi & Saatchi’s Frank was on the defensive for much of the hearing, in part for questioning whether parents should censor the viewing habits of children and in part for expressing skepticism over the V-chip. “My sense is if you tell a kid he can’t watch ‘NYPD Blue,’ he’ll go out of his way to go to a friend’s house to watch it,” said Frank.

Frank also claimed that even if major advertisers balk at supporting violent shows, “There will always be someone out there to support these programs.”

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