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Fox to Label Programs for Sex and Violence

TV: Murdoch preempts competitors. Other networks reportedly near agreement on developing a ratings system.

February 16, 1996|JANE HALL and SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW YORK — Signaling a historic change in the relationship between television suppliers and viewers, the Fox television network announced Thursday that it will begin labeling the programs it airs for sexual and violent content.

The announcement preempted Fox's competitors, ABC, CBS and NBC, which in private negotiations are nearing an agreement to develop a system resembling the movie ratings code, according to industry sources. The three major networks are seeking a consensus that would include the Hollywood studios, cable television and other major players in the TV business.

Studio executives on Thursday met for breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills to advance the issue. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Pictures Assn. of America, which administers the movie ratings, brought together industry heavyweights including Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner and Disney President Michael Ovitz, Viacom Entertainment Chairman Jonathan Dolgen, MCA President Ron Meyer and Warner Bros. Co-Chairmen Robert Daly and Terry Semel.

The turnabout on the ratings issue represents a landmark shift. The television industry has fought ratings for years both on economic and 1st Amendment grounds. Many producers and writers fear that a labeling system will alter the quality of television for the worse, with networks migrating toward shows with G ratings that advertisers would embrace.

The change in attitude was triggered by the telecommunications bill that President Clinton signed two weeks ago. Under the bill, the networks must come up with a TV ratings system for the V-chip within one year--or have the Federal Communications Commission impanel a group to do it for them. The bill requires all TV sets sold in the United States to carry the V-chip, which viewers could set to block out programming they deemed inappropriate.

Adding to the pressure on the networks is a Feb. 29 meeting at the White House with Clinton, who has been urging the entertainment industry to rein in violence and sex in its products.

Fox took the industry aback by firing the first shot.

"We have decided to implement an MPAA-like ratings system for the television programs on Fox," Chairman Rupert Murdoch said in a news release, referring to the movie code of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. "We are prepared to act unilaterally if necessary."

The move increased the pressure on the other three broadcast networks to announce their plans.

"We're trying to get the whole industry on board here," said one network executive involved in the negotiations Thursday. "We want to come up with a system that will be something that will be of benefit to viewers and will be something we can live with" in terms of creative expression.

Fox executives said that Murdoch had decided to break away from the other networks in response to the public outcry over violence. The network offered no start date or details of its plan, and Fox said that Murdoch intends to continue being part of the four-network discussions.

Executives at the other networks, who had been hoping to act in concert, were more cynical about Murdoch's motives.

"He's doing this to make points in Washington, D.C., and with the public," said one network executive. "It's highly ironic that the king of trash TV is the one saying he's making the first move, separate from everybody else."

Fox is known for such racy shows as "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Married . . . with Children." It typically bids on movies that other networks find too violent to air, such as "Bad Boys."

Network officials have long maintained that the V-chip infringes on the broadcasters' free-speech rights, but they have backed away from threatened legal action because of strong public support for the concept of giving parents more control over what their children watch on television.

Sources said that by coming up with their own ratings system, the networks could be on more solid ground legally if they decide later to challenge the constitutionality of the telecommunications law.

Some television executives doubt that the movie-rating system will satisfy Washington. Network executives said most programming would fall into the P and PG categories, and indeed one ABC source said the movie ratings were too general to be useful to parents.

But Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), sponsor of the V-chip amendments in the Senate, said he was "extremely pleased" with the network discussions.

"It was moral suasion, showing here is a path and inviting the industry to follow it," Conrad said. "There were other alternatives open to them, but the wise course was to do what they are doing."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said that the efforts of the networks to form a ratings system signifies that "the networks have finally tuned out the industry mute button and started listening to the cries of parents for more information about the programming available to their children."

Dick Wolf, executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order" and Fox's "New York Undercover," said: "This is really bad. Advertisers will flee from any rating that is not a G. They're not going to want to get letters from people saying they're sponsoring violence. This is absolute economic censorship."

Wolf said: "I dread to think what it will do to network reaction to my product. My gut reaction is that they will want shows that are advertiser friendly, and they're not willing to be associated with controversial material."

Without doubt, a voluntary ratings system is likely to create a whole new set of problems, such as whether shows on different networks are judged by consistent standards and whether the ratings will address public concerns about violence.

Times staff writers Greg Braxton, James F. Bates and Ralph Vartabedian contributed to this story.

* LEGAL CHALLENGE: U.S. ordered to delay enforcing "cyberporn" limits. D1

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