Peacock poops party for ratings

WASHINGTON — While most of the television industry signed a formal document of surrender on a new TV content code Thursday, NBC continued to hold out, earning praise from Hollywood creatives who support the Peacock web’s view that the rating system threatens their rights to free speech.

NBC says the current code, which is just over six months old, never had a chance to work and that the ultimate aim of the more specific new code is to “dictate programming content.”

“There is no place for government involvement in what people watch on television. Viewers, not politicians and special interest groups, should regulate remote controls,” NBC said in a statement.

“I’m very saddened by (the new rating system),” said “ER” executive producer John Wells, adding, “and I’m very supportive of NBC’s decision.”

“Law & Order” executive producer Dick Wolf took to the airwaves Thursday to praise NBC prexy Jim Wright for his “courageous stand.” Like Wells’ “ER,” Wolf’s “Law & Order” airs on NBC

Adding to the current age-based system, the new code will include “V,” “S” and “L” symbols to indicate if a TV show includes violence, sex or adult language. It will also include a “D” for shows with risque dialogue and “FV” for cartoons with fantasy violence. It will go into effect Oct. 1.

The Peacock web may have stood alone in rejecting the code, but other networks were certainly not in a mood of celebration when it came to officially announcing the new rating system. At a White House ceremony presided over by Vice President Al Gore Thursday, there were no industry representatives present, only triumphant elected officials and kidvid advocates.

Bad day at Black Rock

“Going to the (White House) would have implied an embrace or a celebration that we don’t feel,” said CBS senior vice president Martin Franks.

CBS also released a statement Thursday that reflected Franks’ views on the new code: “We only hope this revised system will indeed be given the chance in the marketplace that the previous system was never afforded. At times, this debate has come perilously close to government involvement in program content and the abridging of creative freedom.”

Iger happy with plan

In contrast, ABC offered almost unqualified support for the new code. “We didn’t feel we had to do it, we felt we should do it,” ABC president Robert Iger told Daily Variety Thursday. “Once we focused on what parents needed rather than politics, we did the right thing,” Iger added, saying, “This is certainly the right thing for ABC and the Walt Disney Co.”

Iger said the creative community should be assured that the new content code will not affect programming decisions at ABC. “I am the executive who developed ‘NYPD Blue’ and fought for it to get on the network. (The development process) will remain the same and I assure the creative community of that,” said Iger.

CBS’ Franks also expressed a similar fidelity to artistic freedom.

Nonetheless, the creative guilds, including the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, issued another joint statement — the second in two weeks — criticizing the rating system. The guilds warned that they could not support the new code “at this time” and reserve “all legal, political and other options open to us to protect the First Amendment rights of our members and all Americans.”

Under pressure

Network lobbyists explained their decision to cave on the rating system simply, saying they no choice in the face of high-pressure tactics by members of Congress and kidvid groups. Leading the way to the surrender were the heavily regulated cable and broadcasting industries.

Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti said he opposed changing the rating system, but he had little choice, considering Congress’ mood and pending international trade measures, including two copyright treaties. “Our industry desperately needs the support of Congress and the White House,” said Valenti.

And certainly the pressure will mount on NBC in coming weeks and months. Gore laid out the Clinton Administration’s approach to NBC when he said Thursday, “I would urge NBC to join the national consensus, adding, “Chances are good, that when the dust settles and tempers cool,” NBC will be on board. Industry insiders also predicted NBC would be on board by Oct. 1.

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