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Senate backs probe of showbiz, violence

Proposal would enact code of conduct

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a package of proposals aimed at putting Hollywood’s marketing practices, box office admission policies and even the violent content of its movies under the spotlight of federal investigators and researchers.

The proposals, offered as amendments to the Juvenile Crime Bill, would require federal scientists at the National Institutes of Health to conduct a $2 million study on the effects of Hollywood content on the young. The same bill also requires the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a joint investigation of studio marketing practices.

The DOJ/FTC probe would have the power of subpoena and could create huge legal problems not just for studios but also the recording and videogame industries, which were also targeted by the legislation.

In addition, the proposal would give studios, broadcasters and cablers an antitrust exemption so they could work together to form a “code of conduct” modeled on the one implemented by broadcasters until 1983. In theory, the code would be written in a way that would drastically reduce the amount of sex and violence portrayed in movies and television shows.

“This does not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of the entertainment industry, but would provide us with an opportunity to give the industry the tools that are necessary to articulate what their standards are,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), original sponsor of the new legislation.

Referendum on H’wood

Asked if the 98-0 vote was a referendum on the entertainment industry, Brownback told Daily Variety: “I think people are saying we need to shed some light on what the entertainment industry is doing. We would like the entertainment industry to create its own code of conduct.”

Although many of the proposals had been considered and rejected by Senate subcommittees in the past, the recent massacre of 13 people by two suicidal students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., has created a heated political environment that makes it difficult for legislators to vote against any proposal aimed at curbing youth violence, even if it treads near censorship.

Democrats, led by President Clinton, have used the shooting to push for tighter gun control. Republicans have responded by blaming Hollywood for planting violent ideas in the minds of children. After voting in favor of Brownback’s proposals, the Senate rejected another amendment 53-44 that would make it tougher to buy guns at gun shows.

Boxer punches back

During the debate Wednesday Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) argued that it was wrong to use the Juvenile Justice Bill as a vehicle to bash Hollywood while ignoring the gun industry. “It is a sad day because it looks to me as if you want blame everything on the (entertainment industry) and turn your back on (the gun industry), which looks to me like it is going after our young.”

National Assn. of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said after the vote that his organization opposed the bill and noted the group already had a code of principles in place that encourages its members not to air programs that promote smoking, drug use or violence.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) blamed the media for sending kids a “host of unhealthy messages” via movies, television, videogames and the Internet. “We all know that it is not a bomb or a knife that has an intent to kill,” said Sessions. “It is the person who wields the bomb or knife that has the intent to kill.”

But even Democrats are refusing to let Hollywood off the hook. From Clinton to Boxer, they have said the entertainment industry must be held accountable for the flood of violence on movie, television and computer screens. After passing the Brownback amendments, the Senate began debating a proposal — authored Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina — that would ban violent TV programming from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. However, Republican party leaders are expected to reject Hollings’ attempt to have his amendment included in the broader Juvenile Justice Bill.

Boxer also used her time on the Senate floor to successfully argue that any federal investigation into marketing violence to children should be expanded to the gun industry.

Boxer held up an advertisement from what she called a “youth magazine” put out by the firearms industry. The magazine included an advertisement featuring a 13-year-old holding a brightly colored gun. Quoting the text, Boxer read: “An exciting bold designer look that is sure to make you stand out in the crowd.” She then added, “A lot of those shooters at Columbine wanted to stand out in the crowd.”

Backfiring on the biz?

But by successfully expanding the marketing investigation to the gun industry, Boxer made it more difficult for Democrats to vote against the package.

Brownback said he is working with members of the House in the hopes of winning support for his proposal. But it is still not clear if the Juvenile Justice Bill itself will clear the Senate.

Today the scene shifts to the House, where the House Judiciary Committee will hold its own hearing on youth violence. Committee staffers said the hearing will not focus solely on the entertainment industry, but one of the witnesses expected to testify is filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd.