Friends or foes?

Vice President Al Gore and running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman rail against the entertainment industry, frequently and forcefully.

Too powerful, says Gore. Too smutty, says Lieberman.

Which makes the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles a little too strange.

Because at posh parties in glitterland this week, the Democratic Party's standard-bearers will rub elbows and attempt to extract millions of dollars from the very people who create "garbage," as Lieberman (D-Conn.) has referred to many of the television shows he has seen.

They'll be toasted at lavish soirées hosted by the likes of diva Barbra Streisand, DreamWorks SKG's David Geffen, Universal's Lew Wasserman and Fox's Haim Saban. Presumably, by the time FOX hosts a big party for Democrats at Dodgers Stadium, Rupert Murdoch's honchos will have forgotten that not too long ago Lieberman singled that network out for its "tireless, tasteless and ongoing efforts to drag down network programming standards and for its cutting-edge contribution to the coarsening of our culture.''

Industry execs behind the cameras and inside the corporate suites may be jittery as they watch the morality play Gore and Lieberman have been trotting out for the last week. But they also understand the symbiotic relationship with Democrats: The Gore campaign has raised over $900,000 in direct contributions from the show-biz set so far, even as Gore and Lieberman leave a paper trail of media-bashing.

That's life. "I don't think there's been anyone who's ever lost a vote trashing Hollywood,'' mused one industry wag. "You certainly don't lose any votes from the Hollywood liberals. They seem to be masochistic in their support for these Democrats who would be censors.''

And these guys have some history. Lieberman has his "Silver Sewer'' awards to offending media companies and, last fall, proclaimed that "Hollywood is still going great guns to mass market mass murder." Gore has opposed lifting the 35% ownership cap, pushed for children's television rules and is generally critical of many attempts to consolidate the industry.

And yet."I'm not concerned if this talk does continue," says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "Any legislation that might pass the Congress that would have the government intervening would be DOA in the first federal court that looked at it, and everyone knows that. I don't have high-anxiety attacks on this."

Coming to the same conclusion, for different reasons, is L. Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Parents Television Council, on whose board Lieberman sits.

"Hollywood likes Gore because he's malleable. Eight years of Clinton-Gore proved that," says Bozell. "I think the industry has built up a certain thick skin to what they see as throwaway rhetoric in Washington."

Valenti and other Washington entertainment lobbyists-Democratic and Republican-praised Lieberman. "He's not a political panderer. He doesn't put up a wet finger to the winds to see if he should take a stand on something. I personally can deal with a person like that," Valenti says.

"I think he's a good choice," says Robert Okun, NBC's lobbyist. "The guys like him up there. He's tough on our industry, but it's not just us, it's movies and music too. He's the kind of guy you can disagree with without him being too disagreeable."

"While he has taken the industry to task, he always been open and accessible and is not a grandstander like other people involved in this issue," says one entertainment executive.

A look at the record shows that Lieberman has often pushed the media to change its ways. Most famously, he urged the entertainment industry to adopt a universal-ratings system or operate under a voluntary code of content. That didn't happen. In 1994, prodding from Lieberman combined with Senate hearings convinced video-game makers to rate their products, which even that industry admitted were violent.

But, so far, Lieberman has never pushed through a piece of legislation that required the entertainment industry to do anything.

"And there's a difference between jaw-boning and actually passing legislation," says one Washington lobbyist.

What makes Lieberman not so threatening is that his goal has always been to help parents by providing them tools to monitor what their children are watching and hearing.

"I don't want to get into a lot of governmental regulations," Lieberman said in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable in May 1999. "I don't want to start having the government decide what's acceptable and what's not acceptable, but there's such a rising chorus of anxiety in our country and anger about this issue, that I'm afraid that people will begin to move toward more intervention in the entertainment marketplace than is really wanted."

"What he says is, 'I want to empower parents to make the choices they want to make,'" says John Nakahata, who worked for Lieberman from 1990 to 1995 and now is a partner at the Washington lobbying firm of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis.

In contrast to Lieberman's soft touch, however, Gore has actively championed both legislation and regulation actively opposed by the industry:

  • Gore opposes lifting an ownership cap that limits broadcasters to owning only as many stations as cover 35% of the national viewing audience, a law the TV networks particularly despise and want to change.
  • He opposed local marketing agreements, which allow broadcasters to own one station and run another, although the FCC last year agreed to let LMAs stand.
  • He fought allowing broadcasters to own two TV stations, a radio and a TV station or two radio stations in one market, another rule the FCC loosened last year.
  • He strongly supports requiring broadcasters to give free airtime to political candidates, which broadcasters say would practically be a taking of corporate property. And he helped put together a presidential advisory panel, referred to as the Gore commission, intended to determine that free airtime should be required by broadcasters once they convert to digital. That effort derailed.
  • Gore was one of the strongest voices in the Senate advocating stronger regulation of cable rates. In fact, says one cable attorney, "we could end up with two of the most rabidly anti-cable senators ever winning the White House."

Like Gore, Lieberman also has been hard on cable. He fought to regulate upper-tier cable rates while he was Connecticut's attorney general and then kept on fighting that fight when he was elected to the Senate in 1988. He was one of the Senators most involved in passing the regulatory Cable Act of 1992, even though he has never been a member of either the Senate Commerce or Judiciary Committees.

On the content side, Gore and Lieberman both pressed for the 1996 Telecommunications Act to require new TV sets to include a V-chip that would allow parents to screen programs. They also worked to force the industry to adopt content-based TV ratings, which they did in 1997. And Gore strongly supported the Children's Television Act, sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which requires broadcasters to air three hours each week of educational children's TV programming.

With all that behind them, the record shows that the Democratic ticket certainly has a will to push Hollywood around a bit.

If so, Hollywood will push back. As Larry Divney, president of Comedy Central, notes sarcastically, "We have a fresh copy of the First Amendment here.''

(Left on their own, Gore and Lieberman have already contributed to one morality-based flap. Last Friday, the vice president publicly disapproved of Rep. Loretta Sanchez's planned fund-raiser at the supposedly naughty Playboy mansion, and top party officials removed her as a speaker at the convention when she wouldn't cancel it.)

Still, no one expects Gore-Lieberman to speak loudly about the evils of media on the campaign trail.

"I suspect they won't make media issues big in the campaign, because the Democrats need Hollywood, both from a standpoint of activism and money," says Bozell.

In perhaps a harbinger of things not to come, Lieberman shied away from taking on media directly when introduced as Gore's running mate in Nashville last week. He merely said that the ticket, with the help of longtime child-advocate and content-watchdog Tipper Gore, wants to help parents bring up "PG kids in an X-rated world."

But Gore's agenda, which is posted on his Web site, and the Democratic platform both specifically push the media to take responsibility for its harmful content.

Valenti says he spoke with Democratic operatives about removing the language from the platform, and they refused. "But the good news is that about four people in the Western Hemisphere will actually read the platform."-Bill McConnell, Joe Schlosser and Deborah McAdams contributed to this story.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.