Representatives of every major production studio, cable company and broadcast television network met with President Clinton at the White House for more than two hours Thursday and committed to putting warning labels on violent and sexually explicit TV programs.
Clinton hailed the agreement to create a ratings system for virtually all television programming, combined with new “v-chip” technology, as a “breakthrough” which will give parents more control over their children’s television viewing.
“We’re handing the TV remote control back to America’s parents so they can pass on their values and protect their children,” Clinton exulted following the first White House summit of its kind on television violence.
But the president made clear he believes the ratings system, while necessary, is only a modest first step toward improving the content of programming beamed into American living rooms.
“It is not enough for parents to be able to tune out what they don’t want their children to watch,” Clinton said. “They want to be able to tune in good programs that their children will watch.”
Participants described the session as “historic” and friendly, but industry officials showed the strains of being driven to a “voluntary” ratings system under political pressure and legal duress.
They also complained about the size of the task that confronts them between now and next January, when they promise to have the ratings system in place.
The typical 72-channel cable TV system broadcasts more than 600,000 hours of programming a year, most of which will have to be rated and encoded for use with the v-chip, which allows parents to screen out objectionable programs.
Under the agreement announced Thursday, only news and sports programs will be exempt from the ratings requirement.
Industry executives, who met with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., at the Capitol before going by caravan to the White House, took pains to assert that they are acting voluntarily on the ratings system but would brook no further government intrusion into their artistic and First Amendment freedoms.
The voluble Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, says that while the entertainment industry has been demonized for polluting American culture, the answer is not more regulation but a national moral renaissance.
“I will say this,” Valenti intoned in the East Room as Clinton and Vice President Gore looked on, “absent that kind of moral regeneration, in the home and in the family and in the school and in the church, frankly, no ratings system, however purposeful; no v-chip or electronic device; and no government law is going to salvage that child’s conduct or locate a lost moral core.”
Valenti began with an outline of how the industry intends to design and implement the ratings system. He said individual distributors of programming would rate their products according to a system modeled on the association’s 27-year-old movie ratings scale.
The industry also will create a ratings review board that periodically will review the operation of the system to ensure it is being applied consistently by production studios.
A group will begin work immediately to design the ratings system and to “find answers to hard, perplexing, tormenting and complicated questions” raised by the agreement, Valenti said.
But Valenti and the other executives made clear to Clinton they would abide no attempt to impose censorship on their products or governmental edicts on the operation of their self-regulating scheme.
“Within each of us, Mr. President,” said Valenti, “is a real core belief, a unity of belief, that government censorship, government regulation, government intervention at any level - and no matter how benign its public declarations - is fundamentally in conflict with 200 years’ heritage of free speech in this free and loving land.”
Gore, who has been the administration’s point man on telecommunications issues, denied that rating television programming and requiring installation of v-chips would violate free speech.
The plan raises “no First Amendment questions whatsoever, no more than the movie rating system does,” the vice president said.
But Daniel E. Katz, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said ratings in conjunction with the v-chip will have “a severe chilling effect on the creative community” because advertisers will be reluctant to support programs that millions of households will block because they are rated as containing violent or suggestive material.
Katz said it is “ludicrous” to say the industry is “voluntarily” adopting the standards. “They came in with at least three guns to their heads,” he said. “They had no choice but to work this out.”
Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. RATINGS GAME TV executives envision a ratings system like the one used for movies but are a long way from agreement on whether cartoons and news magazine shows should be rated and how to rate soap operas. A task force of TV executives will begin work today to devise ratings criteria.
2. PLAYING THE TV RATINGS GAME (Note: ran in the Spokane edition only) How the new rating system for TV programs would work: Each program would be judged according to its level of sex and violence. The ratings would be similar to the current movie rating system of G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 and NR, although the category names would be different. Those ratings would be encoded so that an electronic device such as the “V-chip,” which will be required in future television sets under a new federal law, would allow parents to blank out undesirable programs. Networks or cable companies would be responsible for rating their own programs, based on guidelines to be drawn up by a panel of media officials. An industry-wide committee will monitor the ratings to determine whether the guidelines are being followed. There would be no government involvement. The system would be in operation by January 1997. -Cox News Service