WASHINGTON - Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman returned to the Senate yesterday as the leading man in hearings on the marketing of violent entertainment to children.
If Hollywood does not voluntarily curtail its "outrageous" marketing strategies, he said, the government should take action within six months.
The hearings before the Senate Commerce Committee unfolded as Hollywood melodrama, replete with moralizing monologues, unexpected plot twists, and political intrigue that would make any movie mogul proud.
Lieberman praised his running mate, Vice President Al Gore, while Republicans questioned the sincerity of Democrats who continue to accept millions of dollars from Hollywood donors.
Lynne Cheney, the wife of Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, challenged Gore and Lieberman to skip a fund-raising extravaganza tonight at Radio City Music Hall, co-hosted by Miramax Pictures chief Harvey Weinstein, whose studio she singled out for criticism.
And, as Federal Trade Commission Chairman Robert Pitofsky testified about the findings of his agency's investigation into Hollywood marketing, Republican National Committee aides handed out attack literature on "Al Gore: Hollywood's candidate."
"What kind of signal is being sent to the creative community when politicians have one hand clutched in righteous indignation over the prevalence of sex and violence in our nation's entertainment and yet the other hand is wide open, palm up, in permanent solicitation of money and credibility from Hollywood's most glamorous?" asked Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who is the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman,.
At the heart of the intrigue was an FTC report, released Monday, that concluded that movies, music and video games intended only for adult audiences are routinely marketed to children.
Of the 44 R-rated films examined by the FTC, 35 were marketed to minors, through trailers shown at PG movies, or through advertising on television shows or in magazines with large teen audiences.
Every one of the 55 music recordings with "explicit content" that the FTC reviewed had been marketed to teens.
And 83 of the 118 violent video games the FTC examined were targeted to consumers under 17.
If such marketing does not end in six months, Lieberman said, the FTC should consider declaring the industry's practices deceptive and unfair. If the commission lacks that authority, Congress should grant it those powers, Lieberman said.
"This practice is deceptive and I believe outrageous, and it has to stop," insisted Lieberman, who represents Connecticut in the Senate.
Cheney stopped short of calling for government action, reflecting the position of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who has said he would like to negotiate a voluntary agreement with the entertainment industry.
Instead, she called on "prominent" figures to "shame" the industry into changing its marketing practices and its products.
Her indignation was reinforced by other Republicans. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Commerce Committee chairman, denounced the entertainment industry's "immoral and unconscionable business practices." Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, who is locked in a tough re-election fight, charged Hollywood with "reckless endangerment of children." And Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, also in a re-election battle, questioned whether Democrats who made war on the tobacco industry for marketing to minors would be as aggressive with their allies in the entertainment world.
Not a single movie studio chief accepted McCain's invitation to testify, which prompted the chairman to schedule another hearing in two weeks and to issue another round of invitations. The one film industry representative who did show up was blunt.
"I've been in politics all my life," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "I know that when you trash the entertainment business, your poll numbers go up."
The FTC report was commissioned by President Clinton last year after the massacre at Columbine High School, but its emergence in the heat of a campaign season ensured that its findings would become prime political fodder.
Its release came at a particularly delicate time for Gore. Though the vice president was quick to second its findings, his campaign still set off this week on a glitzy swing, dubbed "Moolah-Palooza" by one aide, that included a Philadelphia fund-raiser on Tuesday headlined by singers Cher and Michael Bolton, an appearance in Boston last night with James Taylor, and tonight's $7 million gala, featuring such movie stars as Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, John Cusack, and Matt Damon.
This year, television, movie and music industry donors have given $13.6 million to Democratic candidates and party organizations, compared with $11.2 million to Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Of that, $929,465 has gone to Gore directly, $727,542 to Bush.
Still, Lieberman has given Gore some degree of immunity from charges that the vice president is too close to Hollywood. The Connecticut senator was called to testify because of his long-standing criticism of Hollywood, including the "Silver Sewer" award he and Republican culture critic William Bennett routinely hand out to gratuitously violent and sexual works.
But Republicans made sure Lieberman would not have such a prime campaign venue to himself. This week, McCain invited Cheney to appear as well. Cheney, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, also has a long history of criticizing popular culture.
She angrily recounted the violent, misogynist lyrics of rapper Eminem, which she said "could not be more despicable," suggesting that the recording industry make all lyrics available to parents before a recording is purchased.
Recording industry executives said they could support such a move, but overall they were remarkably defiant, accusing politicians from both parties of distortion and censorship.
Danny Goldberg, the president and chief executive of Artemis Records, snapped back at senators, asking: "What kind of [record-labeling] system can distinguish between the words, 'I want to kill you,' said in an affectionate, sarcastic or ironic way from those same words literally advocating a crime?"
He criticized Gore and Clinton for their "sloppy and inaccurate remarks" attacking the industry Monday. And he had equally cutting words for Bush, recalling the Texas governor's vulgar remark about a New York Times reporter on Labor Day.
"I know that there are many Americans who are offended by curse words and don't want children exposed to them," Goldberg conceded. "However, those people have no moral or legal right to impose such a standard on my family or the millions of other Americans who, like George W. Bush, are comfortable with cursing."
In fact, Hollywood has already reacted to the FTC report. Disney announced this week that its ABC network would accept no advertising for R-rated movies during the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. time slot.
But executives who attended the hearing questioned many of the FTC's allegations. The commission, for instance, criticized the entertainment industry for marketing adult-oriented products on television shows with substantial underage viewership. But, noted Peter Moore, the president of video-game maker Sega of America, those shows included "The Simpsons," 71 percent of whose viewers are over 18; "Malcolm in the Middle," 70 percent of whose viewers are over 18, and syndicated reruns of "Friends," 79 percent of whose viewers are adults.
"It is neither practical nor fair to imply that we should bypass advertising ... simply because of the possibility of spillage to a younger demographic," Moore said.