Senators wield big stick on TV ratings

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee fired a shot across the bow of broadcasters Thursday with a 19-1 vote in favor of a ban on violent television during times when children are most likely to be in the viewing audience.

It is the latest effort to force the television industry to adopt a content-based ratings code — the proposal exempts shows tagged with labels giving specific information about their violent content.

And the Senate sent a message to broadcasters Thursday that it means business. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who does not normally attend committee hearings, voted in favor of the proposal. Also, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted in favor of the measure, after casting the lone vote against a similar measure two years ago. The Children’s Protection from Violent Programming Act was introduced by ranking Democrat Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.)

After the vote, broadcast lobbyists said they would consider further modifications to the current ratings code. “This (vote) sent a clear message to our industry that (Congress) expects something more to be done,” said ABC’s Washington rep Bill Pitts, but he made no specific promises about changes. “This is a sad day for the republic,” he added.

Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti said Thursday no major changes would be made to the ratings system. However, Valenti and others involved in writing the ratings code met with reps from the American Medical Assn. and the American Psychological Assn. to discuss possible alterations earlier this week.

When Congress first passed legislation calling for a rating system last year, it promised to let the television industry create its own code. However, since the system bowed in January, Congress has done nothing but carp.

“Broadcasters can no longer hide behind the current system,” McCain said Thursday. Critics inside and outside of Washington claim the industry’s system, which makes viewing recommendations based on a kid’s age, does not provide enough information about the violent content of shows. “This is the only way to do what Congress envisioned by passing the V-chip legislation.” McCain said, referring to the proposal adopted Thursday.

The proposal is modeled on a similar ban on indecent programming that bars lewd programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The FCC has determined those are times when kids are most likely to be in the TV audience.

In the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Congress ordered all TV sets sold in the U.S. to come equipped with a V-chip. In theory, the V-chip will be able to read the content labels that Congress said should be encoded in each TV station’s broadcast signal.

The full Senate could vote on the proposal before the end of the month. But the House may move more slowly. House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) opposes the ban, and it’s not likely to come up for a vote soon.

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