Jihad against violence

Congress’ crusade against TV violence has suddenly turned into a Holy War.

Three days after Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) gave the entertainment industry 60 days to voluntarily clean up its act, influential Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) offered legislation Thursday authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to prohibit the airing of violent programs during children’s viewing hours.

Meanwhile, in the House, powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) agreed to co-sponsor with Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) a so-called V-chip bill that would allow parents to block out violent programming.

Given their respective clout in Congress, the leap of Hollings and Dingell onto the anti-TV-violence bandwagon can only spell bad news for Hollywood and the broadcast networks. It now seems likely that major TV violence legislation will be enacted by the current Congress.

Industry insiders, wary of what they view as frightening governmental meddling into programming, were especially despondent over Thursday’s developments. “This comes barely 60 hours after Simon gave us 60 days,” said one broadcast exec. “It now appears the Bill of Rights has only nine amendments.”

The Hollings bill is patterned after legislation passed by Congress ordering the FCC to regulate the hours of indecent programming. The measure directs the FCC to develop rules making it unlawful to distribute “violent video programming” during kidvid hours.

Network and independent TV stations would be subject to the new FCC rules, and their licenses could be revoked for repeated offenses. Basic cable networks would also face penalties. The Hollings bill allows the FCC to decide whether pay-per-view cable channels and premium channels such as HBO will be subject to the anti-violence regs.

First Amendment advocates were quick to question whether the Hollings bill could withstand judicial scrutiny, particularly since the courts have already tossed out as unconstitutional FCC attempts to enforce a round-the-clock ban on indecency.

Tim Dyk, a D.C. lawyer who has represented broadcasters and programmers in indecency cases, said the Hollings bill “raises significant constitutional questions. … Violence, like it or not, is protected by the First Amendment,” he said.

Hollings’ legislation stole some thunder from Markey, who held a press conference to announce introduction of the V-chip bill.

The proposal calls for insertion of a microchip in all TV sets sold in the U.S. that would allow parents to block out programming rated violent. For the technology to work, broadcast and cable networks will be required to voluntarily encode programs deemed violent.

Markey said he’s certain the nets will agree to encode their programs: “We believe if we build it, they will come.” The Massachusetts Dem said the TV industry “has a responsibility to help parents block violence, and to stop blocking parents.”

Markey said Congress, at “another time, another place,” may want to consider “S-chip” technology that would allow parents to block out sexually explicit programs.

Markey was joined by a bipartisan group of co-sponsors at the press confab, many of whom urged the networks and Hollywood to embrace the V-chip as an empowering tool for parents.

“I hope the special interests will do what’s right for America’s children and help us pass this,” said Rep. Lynn Schenk (D-San Diego).

CBS and NBC both released statements attacking the V-chip plan. “This is the beginning of government regulation of program content, and no matter how well-intentioned, is contrary to the principles of a free society,” CBS said.

The Peacock web said the Markey bill “puts the government where it should not be — into the business of regulating content.”

An ABC spokeswoman said the Markey bill appears to come “very close to content legislation.”

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