D.C. restricts audiences, careers, minds

So exactly what was accomplished in Washington last week?

For one thing, it’s a fait accompli that advertising for “Almost Famous” will not be carried on the ABC Network before 9 p.m., and perhaps on other networks as well. Al Gore and various senators are proud of this development since Cameron Crowe’s new movie carries an R rating, like more than half of all Hollywood films made this year.

The fact that this happens to be a superbly crafted, warm-hearted, coming-of-age story that doubtless would help teenagers understand the generational conflicts experienced by their parents carries no weight with the politicians. The R rating means that it might pollute the sensibilities of our kids, along with other such films as “Saving Private Ryan,” “American Beauty” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

Obviously, the politicians are proud of their work. By turning their spotlight on Hollywood, they’ve shucked off such relatively unimportant issues as tire safety, airline gridlock, soft money and Japan’s efforts to eliminate the whale population. Good going, boys!

Robert Pitofsky, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, whose report triggered this week’s flurry, admits he’s worried that our bureaucrats might establish some form of “thought police,” and he’s got a point there. Gore and his fellow politicians seem to have absolutely no idea what they’re getting into. Maybe they should read the editorial in the New York Times, which told them that, by “pandering” for votes, they’re heading into a classic wrestling match with the First Amendment — which they’ll lose.

The timing of this political fusillade is nakedly cynical. With the presidential candidates running neck-and-neck, both parties are persuaded that a small number of swing voters, particularly women, hold the keys to the kingdom. Protecting our children is one issue politicians know they can count on.

To be sure, the experts tell us violence among juveniles dropped by 33% in the last five years. There is no evidence connecting children’s deeds with what they see in the media. Further, there’s no evidence that movies or TV embrace more violence today than, say, a decade ago.

On the other hand, the major entertainment companies, faced with increased marketing costs, arguably have become too zealous in courting the juvenile market, and private watchdog groups should be vigilant on this issue. The one specific example cited by Sen. John McCain– the decision by Nickelodeon to reject TV ads for Sony’s French-made film “The Fifth Element” — if anything shows that self-regulation is working. Still, it’s unclear whether the rejection was prompted by subject matter or whether Nickelodeon simply decided the movie was too insipid.

While the political scenario behind all this is blatantly obvious, the implications are troubling. Consider the potential impact on movies: If sharp restrictions were imposed on the marketing of R-rated films, this would seriously inhibit the production of edgy, character-driven films — already an endangered species. Movies rated NC-17 already have all but disappeared because most newspapers won’t carry their ads and many multiplexes won’t book them, as the Directors Guild reminded us last week. Gore seems to think R stands for raunchy, thus ignoring the fact that most of the best movies of the decade carried that rating.

Indeed, his proposals would impinge on the rights of those adults who not only choose to see R films but who also opt to take their children. Further, they impose drastically increased pressure on self-regulatory boards. The motion picture ratings system already is showing signs of severe neurosis. Witness the fact that “Nutty Professor II,” that ode to flatulence, was awarded a PG-13 while “Scary Movie,” a horror movie with penis envy, got an R.

The real danger, of course, is that the Born Againers of the world will ultimately be the ones who will want to decide what is and is not appropriate content, a development that would send our popular culture back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

Some politicians are also concerned about what impact all this may have on the long-standing bond between Hollywood and the Democratic Party, which has had a generations-old tradition of protecting free expression. Gore has never come close to emulating his predecessor’s hold on the town’s power players. Further, more of the major corporate monoliths today are either foreign-owned, like Universal and Sony, or controlled by right-leaning oligarchs, like Fox (Murdoch) and NBC (GE’s Jack Welch).

The generation of visceral, hardcore liberals, of the Streisand-Spielberg stripe, is giving way to a more pragmatic, “show me” band of political independents.

All these initiatives will come into clearer focus next week when some of the top figures in show business presumably will be paraded before the Senate to answer for their deeds. It will be interesting to see whether their inquisitors, the would-be “thought police” will shrivel in the spotlight.

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