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HIVE EXCLUSIVE: Proposed Legislation Seeks Cross-Media Violence Ratings, ID Checks

21 Jun, 2001 By: John Jimenez

Capitol Hill lawmakers are showing renewed interest in Hollywood with a bill that would impose a universal ratings and labeling system to disclose violent content.

Congress wants to know the impact violence in the media has on kids and how to curb that impact. The Senate has asked the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of violententertainment on youngsters.

But perhaps the most ambitious move is last month’s introduction of H.R.1916, the 21st Century Media Responsibility Act of 2001, in the House of Representatives.

The bill that Reps. Zack Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) cosponsored calls for a universal ratings system for violence across allforms of entertainment -- movies, television, music and video games -- andestablishes a minimum age of purchase or use for each product.

“The bill allows representatives of the industry to come together anddevise standards,” says Bob Messiner, press secretary for Stupak.

H.R. 1916 calls on media manufacturers and producers to submit a labeling system to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for approval.

“[The bill] asks the industry to do it, it doesn’t impose [a new standard],” Messiner says.

However, if the industry doesn’t submit a proposal, the bill calls for theFTC to create a standard.

H.R. 1916 also calls for a more in-depth labeling system. It would require that product labels specify the nature, context and intensity of violence depicted. It would also set age limits enforceable like those on cigarette sales, rather than the Motion Picture Association of America’s suggested viewing age system.

MPAA president Jack Valenti thinks the idea is a bit over the top. “Movies are not cigarettes, and to equate First Amendment protected intellectual property with cigarettes is a bit bizarre,” Valenti stated when the same congressmen introduced a similar bill, H.R. 1501, in 1999. An MPAA spokesperson says that statement still applies.

Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) were bothpreparing for the presidential campaign trail when they sponsored thecompanion Senate bill in 1999. The bill was defeated on the floor in 1999 aspart of a sweeping Juvenile Justice Bill, constructed in the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy. But Messiner thinks it may fare better this time around.

“We think if it gets its own hearing, it can generate some good discussion,” he says. The Juvenile Justice Bill that contained it in 1999also featured many other provisions, including massive gun control legislation. Stupak has much more confidence in it this time, Messiner says, and whenever a bill has bipartisan cosponsors, it can generate good debate.

Sean Bersell, v.p. of government affairs and member communications at the Video Software Dealers Association, disagrees. “Any time legislation like this is drafted, we take it very seriously,” he says. “But I’m sure the legislators will rapidly come to the conclusion it is unconstitutional and abad idea.”

Valenti agrees with Bersell about the merits of the bill, calling it “an unworkable and unconstitutional governmental ratings system.”

“The right of the government to punish speech, directly or indirectly, is extremely limited,” he stated. “While obscenity and child pornography may becriminalized, most expression is protected for those who want to experience it.”

However, doubt remains. Obscenity, though protected by the First Amendment, can be constitutionally denied to minors, according to the Supreme Court.

Violent images have yet to be included but if passed, the bill will almost certainly bring that issue to a head.

Bersell has more problems with the bill than just its constitutionality. “It would be burdensome for retailers and confusing for consumers.” It is unnecessary, he says, because the MPAA ratings system is widespread, wellunderstood and effective. Also, “video stores are doing a tremendous job in helping parents learn about the content of video games and movies that children have access to.”

Bersell says the bill would force retailers to resticker their current inventory, which would be incredibly burdensome, and would result in two ratings on most media products, confusing consumers.

Most of the major studios gave no opinion of the bill, many saying they did not have enough information to provide relevant comment.

Messiner, however, says the bill will reduce confusion because it gives parents more detailed information about what a product contains. Theuniformity of the standard across various media is also intended to curb confusion.

“Parents right now really don’t have a sense of what’s in a video game,” Messiner says.

The bill has yet to generate any discussion on the floor of the House. The timing of a bill’s introduction can be tricky, says Messiner, and often depends on what issues are hot at a given time.

Analyst Tom Adams of Adams Media Research, says even if the bill does pass, its impact can’t be foretold. “Almost every time there’s been a ratingssystem put in place or changed, the results have been somewhat unpredictable,” he says.

He notes when the ‘NC-17’ rating was created to replace ‘X,’ its point wasto de-stigmatize the films. However, “the intended effect did not happen,” says Adams. The result was simply that ‘NC-17’ took on the stigma and basically became the new ‘X.’

In the Senate, Lieberman is seeking presidential endorsement for a bill heis cosponsoring with Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) that would prohibit studios from marketing adult-rated movies to minors. The bill, dubbed the Media Marketing Responsibility Act of 2001, uses existing ratings to determine what movies, music and video games are adult-themed. It would give the FTC the authority to penalize companies for targetingadult-rated products at minors with cease and desist orders or civil penalties of up to $11,000 per title per day.

“The bottom line here is that the First Amendment is not a license to deceive,” Lieberman said when he introduced the bill to the Senate April 26. “This legislation translates that important principle into policy. It says to the people who run the entertainment industry that they cannot have it both ways. They cannot label their products for adults and target them tokids, and they cannot continue to undermine their ratings and undercut theauthority of parents.”

A companion bill in the House was scheduled to be introduced by Rep. StevenIsrael (D-NY) last Thursday.

The bill could backfire, MPAA’s Valenti stated. His advice to studios would be to simply not rate their films, since that is the standard used for determining adult material. “The bill immunizes people who don’t rate theirfilms and penalizes people who do rate their films because they want to givemore information to parents,” he stated.

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