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Lawmakers, health professionals blast entertainment industry for marketing adult material to children

FTC report on entertainment marketing sparks outrage on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The highest-profile experts in the House and Senate on judicial and regulatory issues -- backed by a host of lawmakers who have leveled consistent calls for improvements to the nation's moral fabric -- queued up in the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing room Wednesday to lambaste the entertainment industry for its marketing practices.


The powerful committee assembled Wednesday to consider the contents of a Federal Trade Commission report released earlier this week that indicates some of the nation's most influential entertainment conglomerates have willfully aimed adult-oriented material at an audience of minors -- in many cases nullifying their own content ratings.

A long parade of Republican and Democratic lawmakers offered testimony Wednesday: the consensus being that something had to be done to convince the controllers of the music, film and video game industries to cease their marketing practices now or face severe consequences, including possible legislative relief.

Many of the legislators who spoke in the committee's morning session accused the entertainment industry of the cynical practice of encouraging children to subvert the authority of their parents to determine what kind of entertainment offerings may be viewed inside and outside of their households.

Violent video games and the sexually explicit and violent lyrics of rapper Eminem played prominently on the day's activities.

"Kids today are still as talented at manipulating the loopholes to the rules imposed on them by their parents," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "The entertainment industry is willing to aid and abet them."


"The entertainment industry is encouraging young people to defy and deceive their parents," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.

These lawmakers dominated Wednesday's discussions -- as a minor subplot surrounding this election year's vice presidential race unfolded with the brief appearance of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, the Democratic nominee, and of Lynne Cheney, the wife of Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney.

None of the film industry executives invited to participate showed up, though their chief Washington operative, Motion Picture of America Association President Jack Valenti, offered his own argument that the film industry's rating system was endorsed by a vast percentage of parents with children under the age of 13.

Among those who didn't show: Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks/SKG, Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax; and John Calley, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment.


Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Arizona, scheduled a second hearing in two weeks time to give the film executives a second chance to account for themselves.

Valenti sought to explain their absence, saying the date of the day's hearing was "inflexible," and all of the film executives had prior engagements.

The FTC's report, commissioned by President Clinton following last year's Columbine High school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, and released Monday, concluded that the popular music, film and video game sectors of the nation's largest entertainment concerns routinely and deliberately target young children with adroit advertising campaigns for products intended for consumers age 17 and up.

The federal agency said the industry does so largely by placing advertising for such products -- described by lawmakers Wednesday as full of excessive violence and gratuitous sex -- in publications and television broadcasts that appeal to children.

These companies, said Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have been engaged in the "shameless, pervasive promotion of violence, sex and vulgarity."

Democrats, Republicans heave brickbats

Ohio's DeWine, speaking as a panel witness, urged the Commerce Committee to consider the possibility of a yearly FTC review of entertainment marketing practices, intimating that the outrage experienced with the release of the report could fade if the issue is not kept viable.

Others, including FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky, called for stronger measures.

"This target marketing is pervasive and aggressive," Pitofsky told the committee, offering as an example evidence uncovered by the commission that a major film studio constituted a focus group of 10- and 11-year-olds to devise a marketing strategy for an 'R' rated movie.


"I've never heard of such a thing," interjected an agitated, incredulous McCain.

"That's just wrong," Valenti responded Wednesday afternoon. "Some people in marketing have stepped over the line from reasonable to unacceptable."

Valenti defended the film industry's 32-year-old content rating system in his testimony, saying industry polling of parents with young children indicated 81 percent defined the ratings as "very useful."

"This system has lasted 32 years," Valenti insisted. "I don't think there are many members of Congress who have 81 percent approval.

Representatives of video game manufacturers defended their own rating systems in a similar fashion, using arguments that were refuted in testimony by a number of health, psychological and psychiatric professionals.


Those assessments of the ratings systems, a solemn McCain said, were "a pretty strong indictment" of their effectiveness.

While Hatch suggested that minor adjustments to existing anti-trust statutes could free up corporations to clamp down on their own internal workings -- and would give lawmakers some leeway to exert pressure -- Pitofsky indicated he thought new legislation would have to be enacted should all other options fail.

"If self-regulation doesn't solve the problem and existing laws don't cut it, legislation respectful of the First Amendment must be considered," Pitofsky said.

"Very strong words," McCain cautioned as Pitofsky spoke. The Arizona senator said he was "reluctant" to introduce legislation, adding later in the hearing that he would be happy to resort to censorship only if he "knew where it ended."

There was no way to know, McCain said.

Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore and Lieberman earlier this week called on the entertainment industry to change its ways voluntarily within six months, or face strong accountability measures.

In a question-and-answer session, Valenti dismissed Gore and Lieberman's position as election-year posturing. "When you trash the entertainment industry, your poll numbers go up."

"If I were running, I'd do it too," he said.


Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, agreed with committee members and witnesses that marketing practices had to change, but -- with much of the entertainment industry based in her home state -- Boxer said other factors for youth violence had to be considered.

"I would hope we would give equal attention to other factors," Boxer said, hinting that the easy availability of firearms may have something to do with steadily rising rates of youth violence.

No matter what the cause, according to Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-West Virginia -- marketing practices or other factors notwithstanding -- blame must be accepted by those at on the highest rungs of the corporate ladder.

"Don't blame the marketing department. The buck stops with the chief executive." Rockefeller said.

A touch of election year politics

Lieberman made a rare appearance in the committee room on Wednesday, donning a gray suit for the first time in some five weeks, since he was tabbed be Gore to join the Democratic ticket. The junior senator from Connecticut has been a consistent voice of rebuke against the entertainment world.

"Parents," Lieberman said, "...are locked in a losing competition with culture to raise our children."

Lawmakers, he said, should work to "give parents the empowering tools they need to help them with their primary responsibility -- protecting their children from harm."


Leiberman made passing mention to his new political role, saying the last five weeks have been full of "honor, excitement, gratitude, opportunity and joy." He added that he missed his Senate colleagues, embraced McCain a few minutes later, and them swiftly departed.

Ms. Cheney -- a longtime conservative social critic -- tossed a bit of a dagger at Gore and Lieberman during her testimony, saying that the two men -- who had been so critical of the industry earlier this week -- were scheduled to appear at a fund-raiser at the behest of Miramax's Weinstein on Thursday.

She urged them to deliver the committee's message to the film executive.

Cheney highlighted the recordings of award-winning rapper Eminem as she spoke -- whose lyrics describing maternal rape and violence against women were displayed by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, earlier in the day's proceedings.

Eminem's lyrics, Cheney said, "could not be more despicable. They could not be more hateful"

"You put yourself through the torture of listening to that?" interrupted McCain.

"You can't help but understand what he's saying." Cheney replied.




Wednesday, September 13, 2000


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