R fare takes Hill hit

Lieberman, companion bills would allow FTC to fine marketers of adult fare to kids; White House says it wants to work with industry to reduce sex, violence

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) succeeded in reclaiming the spotlight last week, again criticizing the movie, music and videogame industries for marketing "adult-rated" content to kids. His attempt to enlist the White House in his effort did not meet with equal success.

Lieberman and Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) are co-sponsors of a bill that would give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to fine entertainment companies marketing R-rated programs to kids. Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) have introduced a companion measure in the House. Lieberman said last week he is concerned about the "cumulative impact of all the sex, violence and vulgarity our children are exposed to in today's 500-channel universe."

As chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Lieberman plans to hold hearings on the issue, starting with one next month on the feasibility of a universal ratings system. Several groups reissued their call for such a system in a letter sent to congressional leaders last week. Lieberman also plans to hold hearings when the FTC issues its planned follow-up report this September, and is encouraging the new Senate Commerce Committee Chairman, Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), to hold a hearing on the bill to determine which committee has oversight.

Lieberman, Kohl, Israel and Osborne sent letters to the White House and members of Congress trying to gain support for their bill. "This is something that all of us—Republicans and Democrats—should be able to agree on: It is wrong to market adult-rated products to children behind the backs of their parents," said the letter to the White House.

Although the administration says it has not taken a position on the bill, a White House spokeswoman responded to the letter with a statement that suggested it prefers a nonlegislative approach but also it is looking not just at marketing but at programming: "The president is committed to providing parents with the tools they need to protect their children from violent and unhealthy images and he is committed to working with entertainment leaders, advertisers and others to encourage less violence, substance abuse and sexuality in the movies and on television."

For their part, media companies and entertainers are strongly opposed to Lieberman's bill. "We appeal to consumers, parents and policymakers to continue to encourage the entertainment industry to improve its ratings systems and marketing practices through non-legislative actions," wrote actor and Creative Coalition President William Baldwin to legislators.

Last September, the FTC released a report that found the movie, music and videogame industries were "aggressively" marketing adult-rated content to children under 17.

"This bill is fatally flawed," said MPAA President Jack Valenti. "It actually punishes those who voluntarily rate their films and provide information to parents while giving those who do nothing a free pass. It also violates the First Amendment."