From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 36.
By Troy Hough
The Federal Trade Commission’s report on marketing violent entertainment to children prompted a Senate committee to hold two hearings in one month.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) held a Commerce Committee hearing on Sept. 13 to address the findings in the report. A number of media executives testified before the committee, but their counterparts from the motion picture industry were noticeably absent.
The report focused on three areas of media: the music recording industry, the electronic gaming industry and the motion picture industry.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) addressed the issue of rap lyrics and how they are offensive “to us.” He faulted performers such as Dr. Dre, Eminem and DMX for using obscenity and requested that the music industry “ask them to stop.”
“The FTC report is blaming the entertainment industry for social ills,” said Dr. Robert Richards, associate dean at Penn State University. He and Dr. Clay Calvert, an assistant professor of communications and law, are monitoring attacks on rap music and whether First Amendment defenses are successful.
Dan Goldberg, president of Artemis Records, told the senators that more-concise warning labels on music are unnecessary because music is just sounds and words, not a visual expression. To emphasize his objection, Goldberg compared music to another method of expression, books, which do not have ratings.
The gaming industry received some praise from members of the committee for its ratings system, which uses age restrictions on the games and describes the contents of the game, and are intended to give parents a better understanding of what their children play. The praise, however, was short-lived, as other senators scolded the gaming industry for creating violent games.
In defense of the industry, Douglas Lowenstein, president of Interactive Digital Software Association, said the average age of game players is 28 and called on parents to pay closer attention to the ratings.
McCain expressed his disappointment about the absence of motion picture industry executives and concluded that they must be guilty of the charges reported in the FTC report. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, represented the industry’s interest at the first hearing.
In a survey of parents included in the FTC report, 81 percent found the motion picture’s self-regulatory rating system somewhat satisfying to very satisfying. The FTC report also described what it called a routine practice of advertising films to under-age children. For example, the report cited incidents of using children as young as 13 in test-market screenings for R-rated films.
During the second round of hearings on Sept. 27, Walter Parkes, co-head of Dreamworks SKG, said his company embraced the MPAA initiatives and stated not all R-rated films should be treated the same. He offered the Dreamworks film Saving Private Ryan, rated R for violence, as an example.
“Despite its R-rating, the film was deemed by many parents and educators to be appropriate for certain younger adults because of its historical significance,” he said of the film, which in its opening minutes depicts the storming of Normandy Beach during World War II.
Mel Harris, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment, identified several web sites, such as moviemom.com, which explain why a film received a particular rating. In defense of the current rating system, Harris said, “The basic mission of the rating system is a simple one: to offer parents some advance information about movies so that parents can decide what movies they want their children to see or not to see.”
The hearing ended with an assurance from McCain that the committee would not introduce legislation to regulate the entertainment industry. However, Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced a piece of legislation that would permit the industry to create a voluntary regulatory system with oversight from the attorney general and FTC. A provision in the bill calls for a follow-up hearing 18 months after enactment to check the progress of the voluntary effort.