Fox, ABC said ready to repudiate TV code

WASHINGTON — The fragile industry coalition that MPAA topper Jack Valenti has nurtured for the past year is showing signs of strain, and could possibly collapse under congressional pressure to rewrite the new TV content labels, say industry sources.

Both Fox and ABC say they could live with reconditioned program labels that provide specific information about the sex, violence and language in a particular show. And the cable industry has been quietly chiding broadcasters for months for their fear of a more specific content code, like the one currently used by HBO and Showtime.

On Tuesday, Fox officials offered conditional denials of a Washington Post report that they planned to break with the rest of the industry and unilaterally begin airing V, S and L labels. “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but there has been no decision to do that,” said Fox senior vice president Peggy Benzel. She added, “Fox has not made a decision to depart from the group. That’s not where we are now.”

Even the White House responded to the Washington Post story, saying that a unilateral move by Fox could create confusion in the marketplace. “It’s clear that a uniform rating system would be much more preferable,” said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

Last month, in an effort drum up enthusiasm for the beleaguered rating system, Valenti orchestrated a trip to Los Angeles on the Time Warner corporate jet for Washington studio lobbyists. The group met the top executives from every major studio, according to sources who participated. During the hourlong discussion, the lobbyists were ordered to dig in their heels and offer no concessions to Congress on the content code. After getting their marching orders, the group boarded the jet and flew back home.

While the fly-in offered temporary comfort to Valenti, broadcasters continue to see some up-side to caving in on the ratings code and putting the program labeling controversy to rest. Until two weeks ago, NBC was the lone holdout, but with the ascendance of Mel Karmazin at the Eye web, CBS lobbyists were also told to defend the current TV code.

The first test of those orders for web lobbyists will come today during a meeting with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.).

McCain has asked the four major webs and Time Warner reps to update him and the latest industry views on revising the rating system. Neither Valenti nor his colleagues, National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy Eddie Fritts or National Cable Television Assn. prexy Decker Anstrom, have been invited to the meeting.

Network lobbyists say McCain has several options for applying pressure on broadcasters to cave on content labels. Among the potential threats broadcasters now face is a proposal for an outright ban on violent content during times when kids are in the audience.Another bill, backed by Coats, would bar digital TV licenses to any broadcaster who refuses to air specific content labels.

Given the ramifications, it is not surprising that networks like News Corp.’s Fox are growing weary of waging a rear-guard battle in defense of the current rating system — a system that many industry lobbyists say is destined to be modified with the addition of labels “V, S and L” for violence, sex and adult language. A show could be tagged with one or all three of the letters, depending on its content.

Some of the rating system holdouts say that there is no point in ceding ground now, since it has become clear that many members of Congress want nothing less than to censor TV programmers.

“The real is issue is that some members of Congress are using threats and intimidation to coerce programmers into doing what they want them to do,” said one industry source. Some, such as Lieberman and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have openly stated that they hope the rating system will force networks to create less violent or sexually oriented programming.

Other lobbyists note that it may be pointless to move to a V, S and L rating system without a commitment from kidvid advocates to a cease fire. “There is no understanding where all this will end up,” said one network lobbyist Tuesday.

Markey has said that he supports the HBO/Showtime ratings system, which not only uses V, S and L, but also indicates whether the content is mild or graphic violence, sex or language. Markey and others don’t like the current broadcast system, which makes viewing recommendations based on a child’s age, much like the MPAA movie ratings.

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