WASHINGTON — Hollywood took a resounding pounding Wednesday from top Democrats and Republicans, who threatened to legislate and regulate if the entertainment industry doesn’t respond adequately to charges that it sells violence to kids.
The high-drama hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee became a vortex of political power as influential Washington players — including Democrat VP candidate Joseph Lieberman — expressed their shock over an FTC report concluding that movies, music and vidgames go around their own rating systems and market violent content to young people.
“This practice is outrageous, it is deceptive and it has got to stop,” Lieberman testified.
By the time the all-day session closed, Hollywood had been called indecent, deceptive, vulgar, obscene, crass — in short, a menace attacking the minds, hearts and souls of America’s youth. Grimacing senators deplored one visual aid: the lyrics of “Kill You,” a top-selling rap song by Eminem.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) opened the all-day session by announcing a followup hearing in two weeks, after Hollywood movie execs didn’t answer invitations to testify Wednesday. Top execs with the recording and vidgame industries were on hand.
“There will be much said today. But thundering silence will be heard from motion picture executives,” McCain said. “I can only conclude the industry was too ashamed of, or unable to defend, their marketing practices. Their hubris is stunning, and serves to underscore the lack of corporate responsibility so strikingly apparent in this report.”
MPA president Jack Valenti, speaking for the major studios, told the committee that he will leave for Los Angeles today to discuss the Federal Trade Commission report with studio execs.
Valenti agreed that some marketing execs in Hollywood may have crossed the line where “reasonable becomes unacceptable.” He was referencing a portion of the FTC report stating that 12-year-olds, and in one case, 10-year-olds, had been part of testing audiences for unidentified R-rated movies.
The FTC report did not say whether the youths had been accompanied by adults, as required by the R rating.
Drawing a line
In general, Valenti said it was perhaps wrong to target specifically kids 17 and under when marketing R-rated and PG-13 movies, but stressed that it’s a difficult line to draw.
Valenti had to keep reminding the committee that kids can go to R-rated movies, as long as they are with an adult.
Valenti went on to dispute the FTC’s claim that it is somehow inappropriate to advertise R-rated movies on popular shows such as “Xena: Warrior Princess” or “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” when, in fact, the majority of the audience is over 17.
Valenti staunchly defended the MPA’s 32-year-old rating system, saying the vast majority of parents feel satisfied with it.
“The movie industry is probably more attentive to the needs of parents than any other industry,” Valenti said.
McCain disagreed, stating that MPA’s rating code has been “nothing but a smoke screen to provide cover for immoral and unconscionable business practices.”
Lawmakers commended the Walt Disney Co. for its announcement earlier this week that it will not permit the marketing of R-rated movies to young consumers, but said action from one studio doesn’t solve the problem. They also proffered that the entertainment industry couldn’t completely hide behind the First Amendment.
Several legislative proposals were threatened by angry lawmakers, with Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) asking Sen. McCain to put up for a speedy vote by the commerce committee next week “safe harbor” legislation, which would restrict TV programming during daytime hours when children are watching.
Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) said he was considering an amendment to tax laws prohibiting companies from deducting marketing expenses in cases where kids are the targets of the marketing efforts.
Also jumping into the mix, Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah), who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced he will hold hearings next week on the possibility of amending antitrust laws allowing the movie, music and vidgames to come together to devise a universal rating system.
Members of the House of Representatives also said they’d take action. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, testified that he is considering reintroducing legislation that would enact a new federal statute protecting minors from explicit violent material.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a longtime Hollywood critic, testified that he believes the FTC has sufficient authority under the Federal Trade Act to bring a deceptive and unfair action against “renegade” companies.
In his testimony, Lieberman reiterated the Democratic Presidential ticket’s call for an immediate “cease-fire” in the marketing of violent programming to young people, warning that if there wasn’t, he’d also be in favor of asking the FTC to intercede.
The wife of GOP veep candidate Dick Cheney, Lynne Cheney, testified immediately after Lieberman. The former chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, Cheney testified that the vulgarity of certain entertainment products — such as the rap song “Kill You” — cannot be stood for.
Eminem, the rapper whose real name is Marshall Mathers, talks in the song about violence inflicted on a mother by a son.
Cheney said she has written letters to the two female board members at Seagram questioning how they could permit such material. Interscope, a division of Seagram, produces Eminem.
“You actually,” McCain asked Cheney, “put yourself through the torture of listening to this?”
“I’ll say one thing for him (Eminem): You can understand every word,” Cheney said.
Recording execs testify
Representatives from the recording and vidgame industries also testified before the hearing, including Recording Industry Assn. of America Hilary Rosen, BMG Entertainment prexy-CEO Strauss Zelnick and Artemis prexy-CEO Danny Goldberg.
They bristled at suggestions that their present labeling system — devised in the early 1980s after a campaign led by Tipper Gore, wife of Democratic presidential contender Al Gore — is flawed.
All said they were willing to seriously look at the FTC reports, and had no problem, for instance, with providing lyrics for parents. And the RIAA in August devised a new policy limiting the targeted marketing of suggestive songs to kids under 17.
The hearing segued into a debate on content as the day wore on, with Goldberg reminding Congress that it should tread carefully in judging content.
“Washington is a culture of legislation and policy. Asking the FTC or the Washington media or the Congress to analyze popular entertainment makes about as much sense as going to Hollywood to restructure Medicare,” Goldberg said.
He also questioned why more young people are not asked to testify on matters of popular culture.
Rock the Vote, a non-partisan org working to engage people in the political process, issued a press release Wednesday also questioning the absence of any youth groups at the Senate hearing.