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Valenti says he’ll fight ratings foes

NEW YORK — Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti staunchly defended the current TV program ratings system Wednesday — despite congressional protest over the current age-based warnings and de-spite his earlier acknowledgement that the industry may accept some changes.

At a panel session during an Assn. of National Advertisers TV conference here, Valenti said he’d resist attempts by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and others to extend the program ratings to warn about specific violence, sex or language content in TV series.

“Sen. Lieberman believes if you say V, S and L, nirvana has arrived,” Valenti said. “Subjectivity resists precise gradations” in content ratings and winds up lumping “The Three Stooges” in the same category as “Natural Born Killers.”

Nevertheless, at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Feb. 27, Valenti said about a ratings overhaul: “I have changed my mind. … We’re not inflexible.”

Meanwhile, web sources said informal talks are taking place that could result in changes to the ratings system to provide specific information about the content of shows.

Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children’s Television, said, “Neither system is going to work really well for parents because everything is so subjective.” She said she prefers more detailed descriptions of sex, violence and language content in program listings instead of shorthand codes. “I don’t like letters or numbers; they never told me what I wanted to know about movies,” she said.

“The situation that currently exists, with Leno and Letterman carrying different ratings, clearly suggests it needs fine-tuning,” said Betsy Frank, exec VP at Zenith Media Services.

Lieberman urged advertisers in the audience to “become more responsible” in their ad buys to influence what gets on the tube in the first place. “There are consequences to all of us based on decisions you make on where to advertise,” he said.

But Frank and other advertiser reps said current content ratings ultimately are irrelevant to their own buying decisions.

“This is not a system that was created for advertisers,” Frank said. “Our own clients are continuing to adhere to their own guidelines and pre-screening shows episode by episode. We have a system, and it seems to be working pretty well.”

Lieberman said he doesn’t support bills introduced by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) that would establish a “safe harbor” banning violent shows during most daytime and evening hours.

“I do not favor that kind of approach,” he said. “What’s more likely to happen if the TV networks don’t change the rating system as we go on is a (new) proposal or law that requires networks to develop a content-ratings system which they themselves implement.”

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