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Early Peek at V-Chip Realities Riles Some

Television: A demonstration of chip technology in Hollywood prompts the debate about the ratings system to intensify.

September 12, 1996|JANE HALL and GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than 200 people--most of them still expressing opposition to the idea of a TV-ratings system--attended an industry meeting Tuesday night at the Directors Guild of America to discuss and demonstrate V-chip technology and its application.

When it was over, William Blinn, chairman of the Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors, echoed the fears expressed by others when he said, "Speaking as the father of two children, I must say that a great deal of what I've just seen scares the bejesus out of me. If ever we were looking at a Pandora's box, this is it."

Six months after Hollywood studio chiefs and network presidents committed the TV industry to creating a TV-ratings system by January 1997, producers, writers and others in the creative community are concerned and anxious about how the still-developing standards will affect their lives--and virtually all of the programming on television.

"This is economic censorship that will stigmatize 10 o'clock dramas," Dick Wolf, executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order," said in an interview in New York. "If 'Law & Order' had won [the Emmy Award for best drama on Sunday night], I had intended to say in my acceptance speech, 'You can kiss shows like [fellow nominees "ER," "NYPD Blue," "Chicago Hope" and "The X-Files"] goodbye if some way isn't found to protect innovative adult dramas in this awful TV-ratings system.' "

The TV industry agreed last February, under pressure from Congress and President Clinton, to voluntarily establish ratings for entertainment programs to help guide parents in deciding what their children should watch. Many in Hollywood were opposed to the idea then, but what has fueled their anxiety is the fact that the process of creating the ratings system has been going on very quietly--and slowly--behind the scenes, among network lobbyists and other industry executives in Washington.

Jack Valenti, who is spearheading the TV-ratings effort as president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which already has a ratings system in place for motion pictures, and the presidents of the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the National Cable Television Assn. met over the summer with representatives from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Assn. and others involved in child development and children's issues.

But a meeting next week of the 15-member committee of industry representatives charged with creating the ratings system will be the first since late July.

The delay is deliberate, according to several executives involved in the formulation of guidelines. Having become a political issue in the presidential campaign, sources on the committee say, the TV industry does not want to give President Clinton, GOP challenger Bob Dole or congressional candidates another reason to beat up on it.

"We know when the election is," said one committee source. "Whatever we decide could leak and be criticized."

Brad Radnitz, president of the Writers Guild of America West and a member of the committee, said in an interview after the industry meeting Tuesday night that there's "no way" a decision on the ratings will be made until after the November elections.

The committee meetings thus far, Radnitz said, have been "mostly informational," with no consensus reached except that news and sports should not be rated.

The industry had said that it hoped to have a system in place by January. Sources now say it will likely be the end of January before guidelines are announced.

Although no decisions have been made, sources said it is highly likely that the committee will settle on an MPAA-like, age-based system (much like the MPAA's G, PG, PG-13), with perhaps an additional category or two (PG-8, for example) subdividing the younger audiences and recommending parental discretion.

Sources also said that the final ratings system is not likely to include information explaining whether a show got a more restrictive rating for sex, violence or language.

"The MPAA system has worked well for 25 years and been popular with the public," Valenti said in an interview Wednesday. "But we haven't made up our minds. We could've produced a ratings system in April if we'd just done it ourselves. But we wanted to hear from children's groups, parents' groups, community groups and others."

The input of child-development specialists, sources said, is likely to influence how the children's categories are subdivided by age. But some children's TV advocacy groups want the industry to go further--to a Canadian-style system that rates for sex, language and violence.

"Parents need this information," Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, said. "The networks are going to try to get away from labeling 'Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' as the violent show it is."

At the other end of the spectrum are producers who fear the impact of ratings on serious shows. Dick Wolf, along with other producers, has complained that producers are not represented on the ratings committee. He wants the group to consider giving all 10 p.m. dramas the same, non-stigmatizing rating, or perhaps have an on-air advisory, saying, in effect, "It's 10 o'clock--young children should not be watching."

"The dilemma of all this is that violence is essential to some drama," Gene Reynolds, president of the Directors Guild of America, said Tuesday night. "It's part of the human condition." He said he thought warnings and advisories before programs would be a much better system than the V-chip, a microchip that will enable parents to program their TV sets to block all shows carrying a rating they consider unsuitable for their children.

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