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Senator Calls for TV Ratings Progress Report

Media: McCain wants networks to add symbols to programs or he will pursue legislation, sources say.


NEW YORK — In what could be a prelude to a deal to modify the television industry's ratings code, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate commerce committee, has summoned representatives of the four major broadcast networks and the Turner cable networks to a meeting Wednesday to discuss their "progress" in satisfying critics of the parental guidelines.

"This is part of an ongoing dialogue we're having to make progress on this issue," McCain said in an interview Monday. "I believe the networks should have a content-based ratings system."

The industry system, implemented Jan. 1, uses symbols such as TV-G and TV-14 to indicate whether a program is appropriate for children of a specific age. McCain and other critics have been pushing for additional labels that would tell parents whether the program contains sex, violence or coarse language.

Although McCain characterized the intent of Wednesday's meeting as "nonconfrontational," sources said he wants to pressure the industry to change its ratings system before the Federal Communications Commission holds a hearing on the subject June 20.

Sources said they expect McCain to tell the networks that if they don't voluntarily add symbols for sex, language and violence, he will move forward with legislation that would attempt to force the industry to act.

CBS and NBC have been opposing such changes, but Fox and many cable networks have expressed willingness to add the letters S, V and L to the existing labels to provide the information about content that critics have been demanding. Sources said that ABC also is willing to go along with this modification.

A Fox spokesman on Monday night denied a report in the Washington Post, however, that the network was prepared to begin implementing the enhanced ratings in the next few weeks regardless of what the other networks decide.

The industry, under fire even before the ratings were unveiled, has been unable to agree on a course of action. Time Warner Vice Chairman Ted Turner, for example, is said to favor the S, V and L labels, but executives at the Warner Bros. studio oppose the idea, as do other major Hollywood studios.

Still, the meeting with McCain, whose committee oversees television regulation, adds to the impetus for the TV networks to compromise on the issue.

But network executives question whether adding S, V and L labels would satisfy some of their critics in Congress. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) recently told network representatives that they want a ratings system that distinguishes various levels of violence, sex and language.

However, if McCain throws his weight behind S, V and L--and guarantees the networks that more restrictive legislation won't be coming--the full industry might be able to agree, sources said.

Otherwise, the industry could face the prospect of individual networks breaking off and adding S, V and L on their own.

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