Movie studio executives went to Capitol Hill last week, confessed they had committed marketing transgressions, and promised to do better. For their part, lawmakers conceded there is little threat of legislative retribution.
The eight major movie studios and the Motion Picture Association of America last week rolled out a 12-step plan meant to assuage senators' concerns that they are marketing violent films to kids. It didn't, prompting some of the studios to pledge to do more.
Hearings on the issue started last month after the Federal Trade Commission issued a report finding the film, television, recording and video-game industries guilty of targeting violent fare to kids. The movie industry, with the exception of MPAA President Jack Valenti, failed to show up at the first meeting, so last week faced senators in a hearing just for them.
Among the reforms suggested by the studios is a plan to stop airing trailers for R-rated movies before G-rated films and to keep children under 17 out of focus groups unless accompanied by a parent.
Disney, FOX, Warner Brothers and DreamWorks SKG left the hearing with plaudits from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). Those studios said they would not target-market any R-rated films to children. Disney and Warner Brothers went on to say that they would not advertise R-rated films on any TV network before 9 p.m.
FOX Films Chairman Jim Gianopulos said the FOX broadcast network will join NBC and ABC in pledging not to air ads for R-rated movies prior to 9 p.m. ABC said its policy applied to all shows before 9 p.m. Fox's pledge only applies to shows in which kids under 17 constitute more than 35% of the audience. NBC said it's just continuing a policy it already had in place to not run ads for R-rated movies in those shows whose audience is more than 30% kids.
A CBS spokesman said his network has no need to change its ad policies, because it airs no shows in prime time that have audiences composed of more than 35% aged under 17.
Rob Friedman, vice chairman of co-owned Paramount, wouldn't promise never to market R-rated films to kids under 17. "It's important we monitor this on a film-by-film basis. I think everything should be looked at on an individual level," Friedman said.
That said, there are only four shows in prime time whose audiences are more than 35% under 17: UPN's Moesha, The Parkers and WWF Smackdown! and The WB's Popular. WB already has a policy of not taking ads for R-rated movies in family-oriented shows, a representative said. A UPN spokesman, Paul McGuire, said the studio will review ads for R-rated movies on a case-by-case basis.
Some studios hesitated to fully commit themselves to never placing an ad for an R-rated movie in a place that focuses on older teens, such as teen-focused Web sites. "Some films may be appropriate for older teens to see or understand," Gianopulos said.
Still, the studios were willing to take their lumps.
"When we come together and say we will do something, we will," said Mel Harris, president and chief operating officer of Sony. Harris was strongly criticized at the hearing because the FTC found that Sony marketers pushed to advertise the R-rated film The Fifth Element on kid-focused cable channel Nickelodeon. "That was a lapse in judgment," Harris said.
"There are things in this report that shock me and dismay me," said Universal Chairman Stacy Snider. "We're not going to market violent films to 10- and 12-year-olds. However, some R-rated films are appropriate for teenagers to see with their parents."
Disney was the only studio to publicly support a universal ratings system.
"We support empowering parents with the necessary tools," Robert Iger, Disney president/COO, said after the hearing. "And we could not think of a more effective way to do that."
The rest of the motion picture industry, as represented by Jack Valenti, opposes such a system. "I told Bob [Iger] before the meeting that I would oppose him on that. A one-size-fits-all system will not work," Valenti said.
McCain and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.)also have prodded the industry for such a system, but McCain said: "We're not going to pass legislation that requires a universal ratings system. I'm not sure how we'd do that."
Although senators were happy with some of the studios, they didn't get the blanket concession for which they were looking.
"Why don't you simply say you will not market these products to children, period?" asked McCain.
"Why not just stop it?" asked Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who has been among the most active on this issue for several years.
"If you don't try to make this work, you are going to see some kind of legislation, because parents are throwing up their hands in frustration," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).
And Lynne Cheney, wife of Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, returned to Capitol Hill after the hearing to dismiss the studios' efforts.
"The reforms suggested have loopholes in them big enough to drive a movie truck through," she said. Cheney wants the studios to take another look at their ratings system, because a "system that would include films such as Scream and Saving Private Ryan under the same rating is incomprehensible to me. We need a system that puts violence in a larger context."
Cheney also took the opportunity to bring the issue back to the presidential campaign.
"I congratulate Mrs. Gore for what she used to do on this issue," Cheney said. "Mrs. Gore has children and understood at the time how important [these ratings systems are]. But then she apologized to the industry once her husband ran for president. I intend to be thoroughly consistent on this issue."
McCain and other senators were particularly irked at language that said companies will review its marketing practices to ensure they are not "inappropriately specifically targeting children," saying that all target-marketing of violent programs to children is inappropriate.
McCain also pointed out a sentence in the new guidelines that says no company will "knowingly" include kids under 17 in market research groups.
"What's this knowingly about?" McCain said. "If something happens on someone's watch, they are responsible for it."
The senators were pushing for changes in the guidelines to make them stronger, but Valenti stood firm: "This is a voluntary set of initiatives. This is what we aim to do."