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TV Ratings Talks Could Unravel

Broadcasting: Execs want assurances 'we won't all be here a year from now with new legislation.'


WASHINGTON — Television industry executives said Wednesday that negotiations to change the system for rating programs could unravel if Congress refuses to accept a moratorium on further legislation governing the guidelines and TV content.

"This is a potential deal-breaker for several companies on our side of the table," one industry executive said, referring to broadcast networks, Hollywood studios and even some cable networks.

Another executive said that many of his colleagues had only reluctantly agreed to a system that would label programs that contained sex, violence and coarse language. "If we can't get strong assurances from Congress that we won't all be here a year from now with new legislation," he said, "what's the point of making this deal?"

Broad assurances have not been forthcoming from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, who has been threatening legislative remedies if the industry is unable to reach a compromise with its ratings critics. The National Parent-Teacher Assn., the American Medical Assn. and other organizations regard the system instituted by the industry in January as insufficiently informative.

"I've told the industry all along that I will do everything in my power to actively block any legislation regarding TV ratings once the networks change their ratings system to the satisfaction of the parents' organizations," McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview. "But I have no intention of issuing an ultimatum to Sen. Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.] or some other congressman who may want to talk about the content of television."

Lieberman has introduced a bill calling on the industry to reinstitute its old broadcasters' code of conduct. He has said that he intends to press forward with the measure, even if the industry changes the ratings.

Industry sources involved in the ratings negotiations said that feelings are running so high over the issue that some executives were proposing that key members of Congress be asked to sign some kind of public statement saying they would not support further legislation.

Meanwhile, the children's groups that have been pressing for more content information in TV ratings were scheduled to meet at the White House today with Vice President Al Gore to discuss the state of the negotiations.

"The groups have asked for a meeting, and the Vice President wants to help bring this to a conclusion without government intervention," a spokeswoman for Gore said.

Still unresolved Wednesday was whether the Federal Communications Commission would proceed Friday with its public hearing about the ratings.

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