Guilds eye lawsuit over TV-ratings code

WASHINGTON — Just as broadcast lobbyists and kidvid groups appear to be headed toward a final compromise on a new and improved TV content code, creative guilds threatened Wednesday to take that rating system to court.

The Writers Guild of America West, the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild said in a joint statement Wednesday that they were reserving the option of filing “a federal lawsuit (against) any action by government bodies or individuals … which infringes upon the First Amendment rights of their members.”

While the guilds said they would not pursue a lawsuit until they had studied the final product of the current negotiations, all three guild presidents told Daily Variety Wednesday that they had reservations about the constitutionality of the rating system now under consideration in Washington.

Those talks are being conducted between network lobbyists and kidvid advocates such as the Children’s Defense Fund and the National PTA. Although members of Congress are not at the table, their staffers are playing a key role in developing strategies for the kidvid groups.

Broadcasters were forced into negotiations last month by congressional threats to enact legislation that would effectively force a content code on the TV industry. One proposal would withhold a digital TV license from any station that failed to label shows with a content-based rating system.

WGA West president Brad Radnitz said the guilds have already discussed the issue with lawyers. “The government is acting on shaky ground when some of these congressmen are allowing themselves to become coercive,” Radnitz said.

The guilds insist that they have not made a final decision on a beefed-up rating system, but they are greatly concerned about the potential chilling effect that a new, highly detailed rating system may have on their abilities to create.

“The (kidvid) advocates think they are the only people who know what is good for our country and what is appropriate for our culture,” Radnitz said.

SAG prexy Richard Masur said the advocates’ subtext was to control what goes on television. “They are dictating what other people see. That is what this is about,” Masur said.

The three guild toppers told Daily Variety that they would certainly not agree to any new rating system unless an understanding was included that would lead to a moratorium on new ratings or content-related legislation for a specific time period. Broadcasters participating in the negotiations are making an identical demand.

“We really have to take a look at it,” said DGA prexy Jack Shea. “The moratorium has to be long enough.”

The guilds endorsed the development of the first TV ratings system last year. That effort, in which the guilds participated, was led by Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti and led to the implementation of a TV code closely modeled on the MPAA’s age-based movie code.

But soon after it debuted in January, critics hammered the system for failing to provide parents with enough specific information about program content.

As early as next week, kidvid groups and broadcasters are expected to announce a new rating system that adds several categories to the current age-based code.

Those categories include S, V and L to signify a show’s sexual, violent and adult-language content. In addition, negotiators may add D for risque dialogue and FV for children’s shows with “fantasy violence.”

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