Network and cable industry exex got a tongue-lashing from Congress Friday for not doing enough to curb the problem of TV violence.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) called TV violence “a growing cancer” and warned that lawmakers “will find a way to come down heavily” on the industry unless quick changes are made. He suggested that Congress could yank the licenses of TV stations that don’t clean up their act.

The Ohio Dem’s tough remarks were seconded by several members of Congress, who took turns browbeating a witness list that included Cap Cities/ABC topper Thomas Murphy, CBS Broadcast Group head Howard Stringer, Fox Inc. exec veepee George Vradenburg and NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield. Cable witnesses included Viacom honcho Frank Biondi, USA Network exec David Kenin and Turner Entertainment Group head Scott Sassa.

The hearing was chaired by Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who said “we face ultimately a choice between censorship and voluntary, responsible conduct” by the industry. Simon said he prefers the latter option.

While Simon played the role of good cop, Metzenbaum and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) relished the role of bad cop. Feinstein complained that people can learn more about using weapons by watching TV than by going to a firing range. Feinstein said Congress must take action absent industry self-regulation. “Otherwise,” she said, “we’re just a paper tiger.”

Feinstein complained that the problem of TV violence “has been going on for years … and nobody takes it seriously.” She pointedly asked CBS’s Stringer whether the Eye Web will be airing the Oscar-winning pic “Silence of the Lambs.” Stringer said that if the film is aired, it will be “heavily edited.” Stringer said “Lambs” is a special case because of its acclaim and because editing an Academy Award-winner “seems to wander towards censorship.”

Also testifying was House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who sent letters to cable, network and Hollywood exex last week recommending adoption of an MPAA-like rating system for TV violence. System would require all newTV sets be equipped to block out “V-rated” shows.

Another witness was Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who sponsored legislation last week that would require the FCC to issue a “report card” four times a year on which TV shows are most violent and which advertisers support them.

Stringer promised less violence in the fall TV season, as did Murphy and Littlefield. Vradenburg devoted much of his time defending Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops” in the 8 p.m. timeslot.

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