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Ratings: Who is left as defender of the faith?

WASHINGTON — When CBS Entertainment prexy Leslie Moonves introduced “Brooklyn South” to television critics this summer, he warned that its violence was going to earn it an adult-only “TV-MA” rating.

Thus the Steven Bochco production became the first network primetime show to become defined by its adults-only content label — much in the same way that adult movies are still defined by the X-rating. And that is exactly what many television producers feared would happen when the television industry introduced its age-based rating code last January.

Despite the strong misgivings in the creative community about the potential harm caused by the current system, an even stronger and stricter code will be implemented on Oct. 1. While producers and the guilds have issued press releases warning that they have reserved “all legal, political, and other options” to fight the rating system, nobody has yet to step forward to attempt to block the lawsuit.

NBC is refusing to implement the new ratings code but, ironically, the Peacock web’s decision to boycott the new content labels may make it tougher for others to challenge it in court. Lawmakers and kidvid advocates insist that the rating system is voluntary, and as proof they can point to NBC’s refusal to sign on.

Although the FCC has no authority to force NBC to implement the new ratings code, there is still one point of contention between the web and the regulatory agency. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt told a Senate subcommittee this summer that he expected NBC to file papers outlining the rating system it would use.

An NBC source says no such filing is necessary, since the network is going to continue using the old content code, which was filed at the FCC early this year. “This issue was very thoroughly researched,” said the NBC source. It remains to be seen if the FCC is willing to take NBC to court over the matter.

It is highly unlikely that ABC, Fox or CBS will file a lawsuit against the rating system, since their representatives played a central role in devising the beefed-up code.

CBS, which expressed great reluctance in accepting the new ratings, agreed to go along in an effort to put the content controversy to bed, at least for a few years. In return for implementing the new code, key members of the U.S. House and Senate have agreed to a moratorium on content-related legislation for several years.

The bottom line is that a legal challenge to the current code is not likely to be sponsored by anyone with a vested lobbying interest in Washington. More likely, it will be the creative guilds or an independent producer who may make the claim that the new content code will make it tougher to get sophisticated, adult-oriented television shows on the air.

Certainly, a wide range of producers from Marta Kauffman, executive producer of “Friends,” to Dick Wolf, executive producer of “Law & Order,” have complained that the new rating system will inhibit their ability to get shows on the air. But when Wolf was asked if he would take the new rating system to court, he replied, “What am I going to do, sue a network?”

Wolf’s rhetorical question actually raises a key legal point. The most likely target for a lawsuit is a network or TV station which is responsible for placing the rating on a show. For independent producer like Wolf, it is risky business to take on the company which you depend on for distribution, not to mention millions of dollars in income.

But in the late 1970s, it was Norman Lear and the Writers Guild of America who took on the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the major networks, who had agreed to set aside an hour of primetime for family-friendly programming.

When Lear took his case against the NAB to the federal courts, he was rewarded with a strongly worded opinion which referred to the broadcasters powerful trade group as a “national board of censors for American television.”

The court did not require that the networks abandon the family hour, it just barred the NAB from enforcing it. It also barred the networks from entering an agreement with the NAB to enforce the family hour. Citing meetings between broadcasters and then FCC chairman Dick Wiley, lawyers for the WGA argued that there was nothing voluntary about the code, as the NAB claimed.

Although the decision favoring the WGA was thrown out for technical reasons, it led to the demise of the family hour. It also established an important precedent: When it comes to challenging deals brokered in Washington, the Hollywood creative community is on its own.

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