Solons ink TV content cease-fire

WASHINGTON — In a major breakthrough in talks over a new TV content code, V-chip sire Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has signed a letter agreeing to a three-year moratorium on writing new laws targeting television content.

The letter is designed to assure broadcasters that the in-the-works system will not become another target for legislators.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is working on a similar agreement in the Senate.

One network source said Monday that lobbyists are hoping to sew together “a patchwork” of agreements that would allow a final deal on a beefed-up rating system to finally take shape this week.

House Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) has already made his commitment to legislative abstinence in his own letter to Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti.

But signing Markey to a deal that includes a legislative moratorium is a key element of any deal that broadcasters will strike with Congress. It was Markey who first proposed the so-called V-chip five years ago. And it is Markey who has played a key role in forcing broadcasters to rewrite a rating system they implemented just seven months ago. Within the next several years parents will be able to program V-chip equipped sets to block the reception of TV programs slapped with a particular rating, if all goes according to plan.

The networks know they will never get every member of Congress to sign the deal. They are just hoping to sign up enough key legislators to effectively block any further legislative efforts for several years. Among those reluctant to endorse a deal are Senators Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.,). Hollings has put his name on a bill designed to ban violent programming on TV between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. And Lieberman is pushing a proposal that calls on the networks to “voluntarily” set aside the first hour of primetime for family-friendly programming.

Broadcasters say another critical element of any cease-fire agreement is a commitment from a coalition of kidvid advocates that includes the National PTA, the Psychiatric Assn. of America, the American Medical Assn. and the Children’s Defense Fund.. Broadcast lobbyists say they will not walk away from the table if one or two advocacy groups refuse to sign onto a settlement.

According to sources, the latest version of the TV content code will add the symbols V, S and L to the current age-based TV code. The letters will tell parents if a particular show includes violence, sexuality or adult language. There may also be a D for risque dialogue and a FV for kidvid depicting fantasy violence.

But as momentum in Washington builds towards a final content code agreement, the creative guilds made clear last week that they will not sign onto any new deal until they have had time to review the new code. The Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America said last week that they would take a new content code to court if they felt it violate their free speech rights.

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