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Crime victims criticize TV conference


LOS ANGELES -- The industrywide conference on television violence and its impact on children and crime is triggering controversy even before it opens next month.

Missy Zeitsoff, a former Malibu, Calif., city councilwoman whose son was slain last year, is criticizing organizers for failing to provide opportunities for members of the viewing public and crime victims groups to speak at the Aug. 2 conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., which is being financed by the television industry.

"The TV industry is so sensitive to being censored in their programming, yet they're willing to censor public comment," said Ms. Zeitsoff, whose son, Justin, 17, was shot by two men in what prosecutors contended was a soured illegal-gun deal.

"The American people are afraid for their lives, and the TV industry seems to be afraid of listening to the public's opinions," she said.

Ms. Zeitsoff also said that since the conference will be exploring any links between televised violence and actual violence, organizers should have included a victims advocacy group among the panel of academics, researchers and TV executives.

"Clearly, there are a lot of people out there who have firsthand experience with violence who would have valuable things to say," Ms. Zeitsoff said.

A representative for the National Council for Families and Television, which is organizing the daylong conference, said the gathering has been billed from its inception as an unprecedented opportunity for the industry to address the issue.

"It's the first time we've had everybody from the networks and cable together in one room," said Tricia Robin, council president.

Because many individuals and groups outside the industry will be excluded as a result of the focus on industry participation, "perhaps that's [reason to hold] another conference," Ms. Robin said.

Since its inception in 1977, the National Council for Families and Television has organized industry seminars on topics such as how to responsibly portray various issues, including drug abuse, cancer and mental illness, Ms. Robin said.

About 500 people are expected to attend the event, which will feature a panel discussion by academics and mental-health professionals who have studied television violence. Another section will focus on children's viewing habits.

Network executives approached the council about organizing the conference in the face of increasing pressure by Congress and the public to curb violent programming.

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., who has led the charge in Congress to curtail televised violence, has agreed to be the keynote speaker.

A spokesman for Mr. Simon, responding to Ms. Zeitsoff's criticism of the conference format, said the senator had no voice in deciding who would be invited to attend.

Mr. Simon drafted a 1990 law that gave broadcasters three years to collaborate on voluntarily reducing TV violence -- with the implication that Congress might step in if executives failed to act. The exemption runs out in December.

Last month, in an effort to head off government-imposed limits on TV violence, the four major networks announced an experimental, two-year warning system of advisories that will run before and during programs whose "violent content is unexpected, graphic or pervasive."

The warnings, which begin this fall, will cover only prime-time programs on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

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