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B’casters get reprieve

WASHINGTON — Citing progress in the ongoing negotiations over a new TV ratings system, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain gave the TV industry another week to develop a beefed-up system and he also formally asked the FCC to postpone a hearing on ratings scheduled for Friday.

McCain (R-Ariz.) said both kidvid advocates and broadcasters were optimistic about resolving the negotiations by his June 24 deadline. In a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed Hundt, requested the FCC to “temporarily postpone” Friday’s hearing because of the ongoing negotiations, which he said may “soon produce a new ratings system.”

McCain had hoped to announce that a ratings agreement had been reached Tuesday, but he said he was still “very optimistic there will be an agreement.”

Broadcasters have already decided to add V, S and L labels to their current MPAA-like code but they are still negotiating with groups such as the National PTA and the American Medical Assn. over the details of the new system. The V would be attached to shows that have violent content; the S to programs with sexual content and the L to programs with adult language.

Rep. Ed Markey (R-Mass.), who also participated in Tuesday’s meeting, said the talks are currently focused on changes to kids ratings TV-Y (suitable for all ages) and TV-Y7 (7 and over). In comments to reporters, Markey said the trouble over the kids ratings is the result of a split among the networks, some of which are reluctant to make a distinction between action cartoons such as “Spider-Man” and slapstick animation such as “Tom & Jerry.” Some proposals include adding an A for action or a C for comedic violence.

Unlike McCain, Markey said Tuesday that he would like the FCC to keep Friday’s hearing on the calendar. Markey said the hearing will give broadcasters an added incentive to reach closure. “The message to broadcasters is: time is up … this is either going to happen through friendly negotiations or a fight at the FCC and the Senate floor,” said Markey.

Broadcasters said Tuesday that outstanding issues with kidvid advocates can be resolved, but potentially more difficult is hammering out a deal with Congress. In return for adding V, S and L to their current age-based code, broadcasters want key legislators to declare a moratorium on all content- related legislation, whether it is connected to ratings or more direct efforts to influence programming decisions.

McCain said Tuesday that a cease- fire on ratings would not necessarily include other content legislation such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s proposal designed to resurrect the family hour. “I feel the ratings issue is one thing and discussion of content issues is another,” McCain.

That kind of talk was not encouraging to broadcasters, who say a deal is contingent on a broad agreement that blocks all content legislation.

If broadcasters do not come back June 24 with a deal in hand, McCain promised to move forward with legislation that would effectively force them to adopt a content labeling system whether or not the industry can reach an agreement with kidvid advocates.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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