WASHINGTON — Reminding the Senate that “we are not dealing here with bananas or canned beans,” Jack Valenti today will ride to the rescue of Hollywood and its movie-marketing procedures.
According to an advance copy of Valenti’s prepared testimony obtained by Daily Variety, the Motion Picture Assn. of America topper will explain the complexities of the org’s R rating and again note that parents alone should decide what is suitable entertainment for youngsters.
In the process, he will throw water on accusations that Hollywood willfully sells violence to kids.
Standing up for studios
Valenti’s testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee will provide Hollywood’s first public response to a Federal Trade Commission report, released Monday, charging that the movie industry aggressively markets to young audiences movies that are rated R for violence.
“The committee must understand the rostrum from which springs our voluntary movie rating system,” says Valenti in his prepared remarks. “Not all R-rated films are alike. We are not dealing here with bananas or canned beans. Some R-rated movies are ‘hard’ R’s, that is at the top of the R-scale, and others are ‘soft’ R’s, at the bottom of the scale.
“Many parents go with their children to R films. Other parents allow their children to see such a film with other adults. The R rating offers an advance cautionary warning to parents, with the clear understanding that the decision-making choice belongs to parents and parents ONLY.”
In preparing for the hearing, Valenti has spent the last two days absorbing the details of the FTC report and devising a plan of action with the studios. Except for the Walt Disney Co. (see separate story), the major studios have agreed for the time being to remain unified in their silence and let Valenti be their point man.
New set of rules
The FTC is urging the movie, music and vidgame industries to adopt a new or expanded code of conduct that would end the alleged marketing of violent films to young Americans. The music industry in August devised a policy to curb the marketing of certain music to consumers younger than 17. The vidgame industry also has such guidelines.
Studio executives said Valenti will take the offensive and assure the commerce committee that Hollywood is willing to examine how R-rated films are marketed to teens and children under the age of 17 and make any appropriate changes.
He will tell the lawmakers that he will “meet one on one” with each member studio as well as with the National Assn. of Theater Owners to discuss the findings of the 15-month, $1 million FTC investigation.
The report studied 44 R-rated movies and concluded that marketing plans for 80% included underage moviegoers.
An undercover operation conducted by the FTC concluded that kids under the age of 17 and unaccompanied by an adult were able to buy R-rated movie tickets, M-rated vidgames and pop songs with suggestive lyrics 85% of the time.
In his prepared testimony, Valenti states: “Do we make mistakes in the movie industry? Of course we do. We are not perfect, nor is anyone else, in public or private life. The person who declares himself to be innocent does so with reference to a witness and not his own conscience.”
But at the same time, he is expected to raise questions about the FTC’s methodology.
A section of the report states that Hollywood loves to advertise R-rated movies on TV programs “most popular among the under-17 group.” The cited programs include “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “South Park.”
In fact, the vast majority of the audiences of such shows is 17 and older, Valenti counters — and yet such programs provide the “platform on which the FTC places much of its case.”
He will staunchly defend the movie industry’s 32-year-old rating system, pointing to the FTC’s own conclusion that the majority of parents are satisfied with the ratings. Valenti also will embrace the FTC’s conclusion that there is no proven link between violent entertainment and violence on the streets.
“Indeed the Congress should feel an immense pride in this unique American creative asset and the daily contributions of the movie and television industry to this nation’s art and commerce and the endurance of its responsibility to American parents,” Valenti says in his written testimony.
On Tuesday, FCC Chairman William Kennard jumped into the mix and wrote a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee informing it that the FCC will begin to deliberate on child programming and advertising in the digital era at a meeting Thursday and at additional hearings in October.
“Once the record has been fully developed, we will examine the steps the commission may take to protect children and to ensure that television licensees continue to serve their communities in the digital television era,” Kennard wrote.
The FTC report has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the national media. On the political front, Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, threatened legislative or regulatory action if the industry doesn’t “clean up” its act.
Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), has long proffered that the movie industry is responsible for a moral decay in the culture; Lieberman is expected to testify at today’s Senate hearing. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another heavyweight political force, is chair of the commerce committee.
GOP presidential contender George W. Bush has said he would welcome a dialouge with Hollywood about entertainment and violence, but has not seized the issue as his opponent has.