Dawn of a New Era

TV scrutinizes movie ads with greater care

Movie ads may yet endure the wrath of the FCC. Three and a half years ago, studio executives faced congressional anger after high school gunmen opened fire at Columbine High School in Colorado. Politicians blamed the event, in part, on violent videogames, lyrics, and movies like The Matrix. The Federal Trade Commission read the studios the riot act and forced them to devise a 12-point plan to police themselves. Will indecency concerns now apply to TV movie commercials, many of which promote sexy, violent fare?

While broadcast network ads are subject to scrutiny by their standards departments, cable networks can safely venture closer to the edge. USA Network recently gave its viewers a 10-minute sneak peek at new slasher movie Dawn of the Dead
during a showing of gory theatrical Final Destination. The extended trailer ran at 10 p.m., well past the family hour.

Traditionally, movie studios and broadcast networks have a policy of advertising most R-rated movies after 9 p.m., when kids aren't likely to be watching TV. But historically, no one monitored the situation—and many provocative spots slipped through the cracks.

The FTC was outraged that horror flicks like Wes Craven's Scream 2
and other slasher movies were marketed heavily on teen-fave MTV, even though the trailer was G-rated.

Today, the broadcast networks are more careful about the movie plugs they air.

Some networks take ads for R-rated movies before 9 p.m. but screen them carefully for appropriateness. Says one network executive, "We look at the context of the spot, we look at the film involved, and we look at the program in which it's going to run."

For example, CBS might be willing to pitch Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
during an 8 p.m. showing of Survivor, a particularly kid-friendly show, but it would have to focus on the film's spiritual message, not its incessant violence. The network might also consider a G-rated commercial for an R-rated movie during an 8 p.m. show, such as Navy NCIS
or 60 Minutes II, that generally doesn't draw young viewers.

Of all the networks, ABC takes the hardest line, refusing to take any promos for R-rated movies before 9 p.m., a spokeswoman says. Disney, with a family-friendly brand to uphold, took the strongest studio stance in 2000 when it testified before Congress.

By contrast, no television station wanting to keep its license would air Dawn of the Dead
or its ilk. At present, speech is only one area of federal concern. Violence may become the new indecency.