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Political winds put V-chip on TV executives lips


Los Angeles -- When Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole lashed out at the entertainment industry May 31 for producing films, songs and television shows that promote violence, many in Hollywood dismissed it as the political rabble- rousing of a presidential wannabe.

But, today, as the Senate Commerce Committee begins hearings on television programming, it's clear cable and network executives are taking the growing national debate on media messages more seriously. Hollywood is listening to Washington, with some top executives even acknowledging the possibility of genuine reform in the shape of channel-blocking technology known as the V-chip.

"I'm in favor of the V-chip," Ted Turner, the chairman of Turner Broadcasting, told television critics here this week.

"With 100 channels coming into peoples' homes -- and with 500 channels coming in the future -- I think parents should be able to push one button and knock gratuitous violence out of their homes," Turner explained. "Maybe violence in television and movies isn't the No. 1 factor in violence in our society, but it's definitely a contributing factor."

Michael Fuchs, chairman of the HBO cable network, agreed. "If technology can provide some level of comfort and protection [to parents and children] . . . the concept of that is not problematic for me and HBO."

What's happened in the last month to make television violence a front-burner issue again? Much of this renewed discussion can be attributed to politics, as Washington enters a new presidential election cycle. But that doesn't mean consequences won't be felt in Hollywood, or made real in America's living rooms and theaters.

The first factor was Dole's attack on Hollywood, mainly framed in terms of family values. It gave a tremendous boost in media attention to his presidential campaign, and the political consultants took note.

Then, on June 15, the Senate passed a sweeping telecommunications reform bill. One aspect of the legislation mandates a television ratings system, and the inclusion of technology in TV sets that allows parents to lock out certain programs.

That's the essence of V-chip. It's a relatively inexpensive computer chip (estimated at adding no more than $5 to a set's retail cost) that parents can program to screen for and block shows with certain ratings, such as "V" for violent. Senators are scheduled to be given a demonstration of the technology at today's hearing.

Though Dole opposed the measure, Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Joseph Leiberman (Conn.), longtime proponents of the V-chip, managed to get it attached to the larger Senate bill. In the measure, the V-chip was renamed the C-chip. The "V" stood for violence; the "C" for choice. The measure passed 73-26.

However, the real rocket-booster to national debate, and the development that truly worries Hollywood, has come in the last week. President Clinton and key members of his administration have taken the issue of television violence and its effects on children to the front page on an almost daily basis.

Last week, Reed E. Hundt, Clinton's chief of the Federal Communications Commission, announced that his agency -- taking advantage of a recent court decision that restricted indecent speech over the airwaves -- was going to clamp down on broadcast violence and require more programming for children.

"Clearly a record can be made," Hundt said, "that violent content on television is more dangerous to children than indecency."

A day later, Vice President Al Gore made headlines by announcing his support for the V-chip and a ratings system for television. "We want to find ways for parents to have an easier time exercising appropriate control over messages . . . that they feel are not appropriate for their children," he said.

Yesterday, the headlines came from President Clinton, who called on the television industry to voluntarily implement a ratings system and V-chip technology.

What's new here is the fact that it's liberals -- from the White House, no less -- who are calling for restrictions on television programs. Liberals aren't supposed to do that. Conservatives are. V-chip technology has been around since the mid-1980s, but the television industry has repeatedly beaten back its advance by calling its use a form a censorship and a violation of First Amendment rights.

In fact, on Monday, CBS issued a statement in response to Clinton, restating exactly that position: "We can all support the goal embraced by the president [a safer television environment for children]. However, CBS must oppose the government mandated means he endorses. The marketplace is already producing other viewer-blocking technology without damaging the Constitution."

Why are liberals like Clinton and Gore suddenly willing to run the political risk of being called censors by CBS and other broadcasters?

One reason is a new book titled "Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment." It's a well-reasoned and passionate call for reform of children's television.

What's most noteworthy about the book is that one of its authors is Newton N. Minow, the FCC chief in the early 1960s. As a former law partner of Adlai E. Stevenson and current law professor at Northwestern University, Minow is a certified liberal intellectual -- and he wholeheartedly backs the V-chip.

Minow isn't the first person to say we have to balance broadcasters' First Amendment rights against parents' rights to protect their children from potentially destructive programs. The Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV has -- a local television reform group -- has backed V-chip legislation for the last two years.

It's the nature of Minow's government credentials, and the power of his argument in "Abandoned in the Wasteland," that's finally making it OK for some liberal policy-makers to act on what they feel as parents when they think about what television might be doing to their kids.

Clinton, Gore and Hundt have all defended their position with facts and arguments from the book. "Abandoned in the Wasteland" is being read and making a difference in the White House.

Of course, it's not all about ideas -- especially when you factor in presidential politics. Dole showed that voters have strong feelings about media messages. The White House is now trying to out-Dole Dole.

Where will it go from here? The major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC -- will surely continue to scream censorship, and they will surely mount a massive lobbying and public relations effort against any V-chip legislation. (The Senate telecommunications bill still has to pass in the House.)

Broadcast networks have more to lose than cable, because most network dollars come from advertisers. The networks fear advertisers will shy away from shows that have violent ratings, because people might block them out using the V-chip.

Going back to the 1950s, the broadcasters have never lost in their attempts to thwart restrictions on violent programming. Their most recent victory was two years ago when they managed to back down liberal Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) by painting him as a censor in his calls for reform.

But the new coalition of White House liberals joining Congressional conservatives in calling for less television violence has already made a difference. Witness the statements this week by Fuchs and Turner, two of the most powerful executives in cable television.

There is a growing sense in Hollywood that broadcasters might not be able to sell their First Amendment arguments this time -- especially in the wake of Minow's book and the groundswell of public concern over excessive media violence already voiced in the early days of this presidential campaign.

"I don't know where this debate goes," HBO's Fuchs said. "I don't know what's coming down now. I have my own personal opinions on some of the motivations. Unfortunately, this is all happening in an election cycle."

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