Officials of the Big Three networks and Fox Broadcasting Co. Wednesday unveiled a plan to place parental advisories on programs containing violence. But critics dubbed the action a hasty gambit to head off more restrictive legislation from Congress.

Exex of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox displayed details of a joint “advance parent advisory plan” that they say will help parents supervise children’s TV viewing.

Starting this fall, the nets will place advisories at the beginning, during some commercial breaks and on all promotional material of prime time films, miniseries and specials that contain violence that some viewers might find offensive. The plan will be phased in for series programs during the 1993-94 season.

The scheme was presented at a boisterous Capitol Hill press conference that included Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). The industry officials included ABC chairman Thomas Murphy, CBS Broadcast Group prez Howard Stringer, NBC Entertainment prez WarrenLittlefield, Fox Television exec VP George Vradenberg and Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti.

While carefully avoiding agreement that vid violence is a major contributor to crime in society, the web officials offered details of the two-year experiment.

Among its elements:

o Advisories will be used when, “In the judgment of the network, the overall level of violence in a program, the graphic nature of the violent content, or the tone, message or mood of the program make it appropriate.” Factors will include the context of the violent depiction, the composition of the intended audience and the time period of the broadcast.

o Programs will be evaluated individually to assure that the advisory system highlights appropriate programs. The system would not necessarily be warranted for programs where only an isolated act of violence occurs, or for genres where violence is known to be present but is not graphically depicted.

o The advisory will read: “Due to some violent content, parental discretion is advised.” It may be modified to provide further clarification in response to particular situations.

o The webs agreed to individually evaluate use of the advisory after two years, weighing such factors as its use by competing TV distributors and the reaction by viewers, advertisers, producers and affiliates.

The plan will be formally presented at an industry powwow on video violence in August, where the networks will urge colleagues in cable TV, syndication and at the local station level to sign on. (Ted Turner has already endorsed the plan for shows aired by the Turner Broadcasting System.)

Children’s television advocates wasted little time in assessing the joint network agreement. “It is a small step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly comprehensive enough,” said Carole Leiberman, who chairs the National Coalition on Television & Violence. She called it a “last-minute peace offering to avoid stiffer government regulation.”

Leiberman said the most valuable aspect of the plan is its “implicit admission that there is a link between TV and societal violence.” But she urged adoption of a formula that makes “scientific and psychological sense.”

Kathryn Montgomery, co-director of the Center for Media Education, also called the program a promising first step, albeit one clearly aimed at preempting increased pressure on media violence. Montgomery said it is “unfortunate” that the plan omits children’s programming.

The network exex told reporters not to expect advisories on routine series since they’re not brutal enough to qualify. However, ABC’s new police drama “NYPD Blue” will carry a warning, Murphy said, which had been planned prior to the announcement.

In addition, networks and local stations frequently air viewer discretion advisories on theatrical movies airing on TV and occasionally on made-for-TV fare.

Stringer said CBS will consider whether labels are warranted for its Chuck Norris action series, “Walker, Texas Ranger.” The show was cited in a spring tryout as one of the more violent hours on TV.

What will the new labels cost in terms of advertising? “It’s too early to put a dollar figure on it, but it could be significant,” NBC’s Littlefield said. “The advertising marketplace is soft right now, and if someone is looking for an excuse to get out of a movie, they’ve got one,” he said.

MPAA chief Valenti put it more bluntly: “Ain’t nobody gonna make money out of this,” he told the press conference. Valenti said the MPAA will hold meetings within the next few months on vid violence and how to deal with it.

The joint plan drew applause from the two lawmakers on hand for the announcement. “It is a significant step in the direction of assuring that a powerful medium can be a force for good in our society,” Simon said.

Markey will hold hearings today on the plan before his House telecommunications subcommittee.

Littlefield said the key to the joint program is the leadership position being taken by the networks. But he said it’s not the total answer.

“When you talk about societal violence, clearly what network TV does is important. But other important issues include the proliferation of handguns, drugs, medical care and the treatment of the mentally ill, fractionalization of the family unit and other social issues.”

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