"Cowardly, terrible, appalling, repulsive" were just some of the terms used by legislators to describe TV programmers and their violent TV programming during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday on the impact of media violence on kids. But many of those critics still weren't ready to start regulating it out of existence.
Virtually all of the Senators at the hearing agreed that there was much on TV that they did not want to watch and did not want their kids or grandkids to watch, but there was disagreement over whose responsibility it was to make sure they didn't.
Big Media companies are putting more emphasis on profits than the well-being of kids, he said, while hiding behind ineffective Band-Aids of voluntary action. Rockefeller said he expected broadcasters to argue for parental responsibility and content-control tools, which they did, but said that has not worked and the government was going to need to step in. He didn't seem to have a lot of takers on the committee.
Rockefeller also called the $300 million TV Boss ratings/V-chip education campaign that had been spearheaded by the late Jack Valenti "farcical" and a joke.
Rockefeller called the industry "cowardly" for putting the onus on parents to control their kids TV viewing, saying it was not always possible. Then, saying he wasn't sure if his colleagues knew how violent TV had become, aired a video montage--put together by the Parents Television Council--to demonstrate.
It was that video, which included a now-famous forced oral sex scene from FX's The Shield, that prompted the legislators to register their general disgust. The video was cut short after Rockefeller and company appeared to have had their fill.
Rockefeller said that every media CEO he has talked with "never fails to tell me how personally appalled they are by the violent content on TV" and say they would change it if they could. But he said they never explain why they won't change it. But Rockefeller had an answer, saying it was all about ratings and sweeps and advertisers.
The media's chief defender on the panel of witnesses, which also included Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori was noted attorney Lawrence Tribe, making his first appearance on the hill as a paid consultant--Rockefeller made sure to point that out--for the cable, broadcasting and movie industries.
But Tribe said he was speaking from the heart, not the wallet, and would not always be saying things the industry would agree with. Most notably for FX, at least, at one point he said that he thought the Shield oral sex scene was probably obscene, and thus subject to government censure. But Tribe said that he thought it was virtually impossible to come up with a definition of media violence that would pass court muster, and said that the government should be concentrating instead on improving the ratings system or viewer education.
Choosing a violent metaphor, Tribe said he did not feel it was in the interests of anyone's children or grandchilren to "sacrifice free speech on the altar of protecting children."
Tribe said that the problem was not the media, but parents who weren't controlling their kids' viewing, saying the government should be addressing that problem. That was a point that did not score with Rockefeller. Tribe also got a rise out of Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) when he talked of the censorship of Big Brother and of grandstanding on the issue. Dorgan took umbrage, saying that he did not think the committee was grandstanding by addressing the issue of protecting kids from TV content that researchers, including several on the panel, said harmed them. Dorgan also pointed out that broadcasters use the public airwaves and are licensed by the government, which he said made it the business of the committee to take up the issue of what they were showing on those airwaves.
Tribe clarified that he was not referring to grandstanding by the committee, and that censoring TV content would indeed smack of Big Brother.
Tribe also took a pragmatic view of an attempt to regulating violence, saying essentially it would be a waste of time and energy to come up with a violence regulation bill that would just be thrown out by the courts as unconstitutionally vague.
Rockefeller was the most vocal proponent of regulating media violence by far, but he was outnumbered by those who had reservations about regulating TV content.
Senator Ted Stevens, ranking Republican, raised the Constitutional problems of regulating violent conent and suggested education and parental control as the better approach. He also pointed out that there were many other outlets for violent content, including iPods and computers.
Senator John Sununu (R-NH) said that as "bothered or disappointed" as he and his colleagues might be by what they see on TV, "it is very difficult to solve or address with a rule, regulation or law....
Anytime you address the quality, form or content [of programming], he said, "you run into genuine, important First Amendment questions."
Sununu said perhaps there was something the FCC might do to better enforce existing standards, though he did not elaborate. Tribe threw out a challenge to the FCC, telling the legislators that they should ask the commission to come up with a defensible definition of TV violence if they think there is one out there. The commission in an April report to Congress on the issue essentially punted on coming up with that definition, saying Congress should do it.
Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ) was concerned about violence, but placed it in a wider context. while he said that TV programming was often vulgar and discouraging and opined of the "depravity" ruling our behavior, he said regulating that behavior didn't work. "We tried it once," he said. "It was called prohibition."
The key, he said, is finding out how to curb the appetite for such programming--check with the hotels and see what kind of movies people most download, he said--while not violating speech freedoms. He also said video games should be in the conversation about violence. The hearing focused almost entirely on TV.
But Lautenberg also asked the media to "please, please" do something to help curb that appetite for violence.
Lautenberg also said there was something hypocritical about allowing the media violence, but Pentagon does not allow media coverage of bodies returning to the U.S. at Dover, Del.
Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) said that government is not substitute for good parenting and that monitoring regimes could use improvement. He also raised the a la carte issue (FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was not there to raise the issue. He was scheduled to testify, but his infant son is still in the hospital).
Smith, taking an opposite tack form Martin's support of a la carte, said he was afraid mandating per-channel cable pricing would actually reduce the number of family-friendly children's offerings since some of them depend on the success of other channels they are bundled with.