In an effort to head off a movie-like rating system for television shows, the four broadcast networks today will announce an agreement to run parental advisories before violent programs go on the air.
The decision comes after years of mounting criticism over too many killings and car crashes on television and is aimed at preventing even stiffer regulation from Congress. The agreement is scheduled to take effect with the fall season's new shows.
Details of the accord will be disclosed at a Washington news conference held by Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., a leading critic of TV violence, and senior executives from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
The news conference also will be used as a platform to announce a new "awareness campaign" by the major Hollywood studios to force producers to reduce the violence in their programs.
Jack Valenti, the influential Hollywood lobbyist and president of the Motion Picture Association of America, also will urge that the guilds for TV producers and writers become involved in the campaign.
The accord, reached during six weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, comes as Congress is holding hearings on TV violence and only one day before a congressional subcommittee is scheduled to hear further testimony about the issue.
Under the agreement, each network will have the discretion to apply the parental advisory as it sees fit.
At a minimum, the parental advisory is expected to be applied in all cases where there is "unexpected graphic or pervasive violence," one network executive said. "It does not dictate how the network communicates it, but it's designed to be real."
Made-for-TV movies, which are often based on real-life stories, and action-adventure cop shows are frequently cited as the most violent shows on TV. The parental advisories also will be included on promotional spots and in print advertising in answer to critics who say that TV violence is not limited only to program content.
Although some advocates had pushed for an independent committee to review and rate violence in TV programs -- similar to what is done with movies -- the agreement will be self-policing and self-administrated by the networks.
One of the great fears of TV executives is that a Hollywood-like rating system would scare away viewers and advertisers. They also worried that lawmakers want to install "violence chips" in TV sets allowing parents to block out so-called "V-rated" programs.
Tomorrow, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, is scheduled to hold his second round of hearings on TV violence. Senior network executives and Mr. Valenti are scheduled to testify. But today's announcement is likely to take some of the wind out of Mr. Markey's sails.
"This starts the ball rolling," said one TV industry source. "If [Congress] goes to a chip or a ratings system, who knows where it will end."
Precisely what form the program advisories will take shape is not known. One executive said a network could run a message across the bottom of the screen, have an announcement that the program may not be suitable for children, or show a billboard similar to the one seen in movie theaters before the feature begins.
The agreement does not cover cable television or independent TV stations, many of which are criticized for airing programs even more violent than those seen on the networks.
Some cable networks, such as HBO and Showtime, routinely note that some of the movies and programs they air contain adult themes or graphic violence.
But the cable industry has argued that it provides a private subscription service and therefore, unlike the networks which use public airwaves, are not subject to program content regulation.