TV violence advisory no hit in House

The parental advisory plan to warn of violent TV programming, unveiled this week by the broadcast networks, was scrutinized Thursday by a House subcommittee openly skeptical of the industry’s motives and the worthiness of the experiment.

While praising the webs for the move, members of the House tele-communications subcommittee warned that it should not be viewed as a panacea for the problems of vid violence. They vowed to closely monitor the violence quotient of the fall season, as well as the outcome of an Aug. 2 industry meeting in Los Angeles.

Thursday marked the third hearing this year on violence before the panel chaired by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Witnesses included top guns from the networks, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, independent TV stations and cable.

The scheduled hearing, and the saber-rattling that preceded it,prompted the three networks and Fox Broadcasting to hurriedly announce an experiment to provide warnings on certain shows beginning next season.

The last-minute nature of the proceedings was not lost on panel members, who repeatedly asked why the scheme was so long in coming — after 40 years of Congressional cajoling and six months before expiration of a three-year-old law waiving antitrust constraints on the industry.

The parental advisory plan wasstaunchly defended by witnesses, most of whom were on hand at a June 30 press conference to unveil it (Daily Variety, July 1).

“The increased sensitivity of the American people to depictions of violence on television had led us to be more sensitive in ordering shows for our new schedules,” said Thomas Murphy, CapCities/ABC board chairman. The new plan, and other efforts, will “change the nature and level of violence our viewers see on TV,” he promised.

But the plan’s biggest shortcoming is that it will be difficult to administer in households where parents can’t supervise the viewing habits of their children , subcommittee members said. “Unless parents take back control of the TV set, this whole effort will be in vain,” Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) grumbled.

Lawmakers said the warnings need to be accompanied by technology enabling parents to block certain shows they deem unsuitable for children. The latest gizmo to accomplish this is the so-called v-chip, which could be inserted into new TV sets.

Yet the chip was unanimously bashed by broadcasters, who envision a flight of advertisers from programs that carry advisories, and would be zapped by parents.

For as envisioned, the v-chip is an inflexible technology that would only permit parents to block all programs that are electronically tagged as violent — not to pick and choose from among them.

So the entire genre of vidpixcould suffer from the v-chip, warned Peter Tortorici, exec veepee of CBS Entertainment. While telepix are frequently the most controversial offerings on TV, “they often provide the most social benefit” of any network’s schedule, he said.

“We would welcome new technology that would deny access to specific programming,” said George Vradenburg, exec veepee of Fox Inc.

MPAA prez Jack Valenti said that as configured, the v-chip poses a distressing scenario: parents blocking all violent programs without proper consideration. “I’m opposed to indictment without appraisal,” he told the panel. “Parental discretion means it ought to be done individually.”

But subcommittee chairman Markey argued that requiring painstaking selections would render the plan unworkable. “Evidence indicates (parents) simply wouldn’t do it,” he lamented.

Other issues tackled during the hearing included the merits of “good violence” over “bad violence.” The distinction involves gratuitous acts vs. violence necessary to sustain drama and portray pro-social themes.

Several lawmakers labeled discussion on the topic merely a “smokescreen” to deflect concern from the real issue — the social problems resulting from vid violence. “The problem is that TV desensitizes us to violence because it’s so real and graphic,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin (D-La.).

The subcommittee’s most vicious complaints about violence were voiced by Rep. John Bryant (D-Texas). He called the advisory plan “an obvious attempt (by the networks) to stay one step ahead of Congress,” and called for license revocations for stations that don’t improve their programming.

Panel members grilled Valenti on his promise to assemble representatives throughout the creative community to sensitize them about the dangers of gratuitous violence.

Valenti pledged to make the best effort possible to increase awareness on the theme. A series of meetings in the coming months will examine the anatomy of violence as part of visual storytelling, he said. “Probably what we need is some definition of the word violence,” he mused.

Valenti defense

Valenti voiced the witness table’s most eloquent defense of television and its effects on society. He also said a violence ratings system patterned after MPAA’s film ratings scheme “would be too heavy a logistical burden” considering the large volume of TV programming.

Other witnesses included James Hedlund, prez of the Assn. of Independent Television Stations Inc. He reminded the lawmakers that while the webs are earning praise and publicity for this week’s announcement, virtually the same plan was presented by INTV four weeks ago.

Warren Littlefield, NBC’s prez of entertainment, urged the lawmakers to be vigilant but patient. “We are working hard to reduce the level of violence on our airwaves,” he said. “Don’t judge us by our past. Judge us by our future.”

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