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Media take a pounding

Sparked by a Federal Trade Commission report and fueled by campaign rhetoric, violence in movies, music and videogames was hot topic No. 1 in Washington last week, too hot for many in Hollywood to handle.

The FTC's report, released at the beginning of the week, said media companies target violent products squarely at kids, even though they label those products for adults, 17 or older. By the end of the week, the White House, the FCC and Congress had all publicly scolded the entertainment industry for the underage selling.

The issue even popped up in the middle of the presidential election, as Democrats Al Gore and Joe Lieberman along with Lynne Cheney, the wife of Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney, slammed the media.

The drums started beating Aug. 26, when the Washington Post learned that the Federal Trade Commission was ready to release a report, commissioned after the Columbine shootings, that found movie studios, record companies and videogame makers guilty of marketing their violent wares to kids via TV and other media. It also reported that the Senate Commerce Committee planned a hearing on the issue. After some initial hesitance, Lieberman decided two weeks ago to testify, raising the stakes considerably.

Last Monday, when the FTC released the report, The New York Times ran a well-timed interview with Gore in which he shook his finger at the industry. Gore continued in that vein all day, first in an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show and later during a town-hall meeting.

Gore gave the entertainment industry six months to "clean up its act" and chided it for "surreptitiously advertising under parents' radar screens. That's just plain wrong." If entertainment companies don't fall in line, Gore said, he plans to call on the FTC to pursue a lawsuit against companies for unfair and deceptive advertising. FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky backed Gore up on that pledge during his Monday press conference and, later in the week, at the six-hour Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

The country's top Democrats-the Clintons-also took the opportunity to flog Hollywood during one of Hillary Clinton's New York Senate campaign appearances. "So [the entertainment companies say] 'here's my rating system, here's what I hope the parents will act on. And while the parents aren't looking, I'm going to beam this advertising in and hope they'll come anyway,'" President Clinton said at the Jewish Community Center in Westchester County, N.Y. "The American people will give the entertainment industry a period to fix this, but something has to be done."

George W. Bush had little to say on the issue but did call Gore a "hypocrite" for taking money from Hollywood while simultaneously bashing its marketing practices. The entertainment industry has raised some $13 million for Democrats at last count, and that's not including the estimated $5 million tally from Thursday night's Radio City Music Hall extravaganza hosted by Miramax's Harvey Weinstein.

But other Republicans made sure they were in on the action. The Republicans' second-most recognizable face, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ran last week's hearing. Besides finding their marketing practices "obscene," McCain was incensed at the failure of any movie-studio executive to appear at his hearing, while finding plenty of time to hold Democratic fundraisers. Motion Picture Association President Jack Valenti tried to explain their absences by saying they were busy, but McCain wasn't buying.

"I can only conclude the industry was too ashamed of, or unable to defend, their marketing practices. Their hubris is stunning and serves to underscore the lack of corporate responsibility so strikingly apparent in this report."

Undaunted, McCain scheduled another hearing, just for them, in two weeks. There was no word at press time on who would accept the invitation.

Another prominent Republican, Lynne Cheney, testified before the McCain committee. Cheney, who is also former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, opposes regulation but wants to focus on shaming individual artists and companies into good behavior. "The time has come, I think, to quit issuing blanket denouncements, to zero in with a bill of particulars, and to hope that individuals will step up and assume responsibility," she said.

But Lieberman's appearance at the hearing, albeit brief, got the most attention. And it was framed in campaign rhetoric. "This practice is outrageous, I believe it is deceptive, and I hope it will stop," Lieberman said. Then he echoed Gore with what he believes needs to happen next.

"Vice President Gore and I have demanded an immediate cease-fire in the marketing of adult-rated products to children. And that is why we have challenged the entertainment industry to develop uniform codes of responsibility to enforce this policy, just as the FTC has recommended, with real, self-enforced sanctions for offending companies."

Once Lieberman left the building, members of Congress jockeyed to get their two cents in.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) focused on the politics of the issue.

"What about the role of politicians, who seem to want to have it both ways? What kind of signal is being sent to the creative community, when politicians have one hand clutched in righteous indignation over the prevalence of sex and violence in our nation's entertainment and yet the other hand is wide open, palm up, in permanent solicitation of money and credibility from Hollywood's most glamorous?" Hatch plans to hold his own hearing this Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will vote on a bill sponsored by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) that confines violent TV programming to late hours. McCain expects that the committee will pass the bill and then the full Senate will block it. Hollings attempted to get this same bill passed last spring, but it failed 60-39.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) has threatened to append language to a tax bill that would cost companies their tax deduction for ads targeting inappropriate products to children. When Breaux tried to get a feel for the industry's take on such a measure, most in the industry ducked, except Recording Industry Association President Hilary Rosen, who said, "In a simple word, no, I would not support it."

Meanwhile, on the Senate floor that day, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), on behalf of Republican leadership, tried to bring up a measure that would have required the entertainment industry to adopt a uniform ratings system, but he was blocked by Democrats.

Finally, FCC Chairman William Kennard last week said he also plans hearings next month on kids TV in connection with public-interest obligations for digital television. Kennard endorsed four senators' calls-including McCain and Lieberman-for a voluntary code of conduct for broadcasters.

While Kennard's two Democratic colleagues backed his plan to examine marketing practices, Republicans on the panel said it is anything but a good idea. Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth called it a "sign of defeat" and lack of faith in "American values of free markets, choice and judgment of Americans."

Commissioner Michael Powell complained that there is "no empirical evidence of a widespread problem" and it's too soon to impose new limits on DTV anyway.

Policymakers acknowledge that the entertainment industry already has made strides toward correcting its marketing practices. The record companies said they will revise their ratings to be clearer, and retailers said they will crack down on selling mature-rated games to kids. The movie industry admitted freely that some of the practices the FTC discovered are despicable, such as including 11-year-olds in focus groups on R-rated movies. And ABC and NBC said they will restrict times when they air spots for R-rated movies.

"I don't think that we ought to target any kid under 17 for R-rated movies," Valenti said. He didn't offer a solution but flew out to California to meet with studio heads last Thursday.

Ultimately, filmmakers and videogame makers may face no real consequences for trying to sell Scream 3 to kids innocently enjoying their Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, but, in the meantime, Tinseltown's going to spend some uncomfortable time in the spotlight.