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It's Hollywood's Ball

FTC chief's warning on federal intervention should bring some balance to the intense controversy about adult fare directed at children.

November 26, 2000

At a congressional hearing in September, legislators suggested they would try to prosecute the entertainment industry for marketing ultraviolent fare to children. Incensed by a newly issued report from the Federal Trade Commission, which found the industry routinely directed adult-rated material to kids, they asked FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky to evaluate their options.

Last week Pitofsky issued his report, which concludes that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to restrict how entertainment companies market their products. We hope that Pitofsky's sensible report will spare the nation months of legal wrangling between Hollywood executives and legislators.

As Pitofsky pointed out, legislators' proposed harsh sanctions against Hollywood were based on the mistaken assumption that the industry's efforts to promote violent entertainment to children were analogous to the tobacco industry's illegal marketing of cigarettes to children.

While the industry should be ashamed of its misguided marketing effort, it is not comparable to pushing products that cause cancer. Entertainment industry campaigns to market violent entertainment to children may be sleazy, but unlike the tobacco marketing investigated by Congress in the last decade they don't violate state laws regarding sales to minors or federal laws prohibiting deceptive advertising. Indeed, as the cultural critic Wendy Kaminer put it, "many popular entertainments are just as bad as they purport to be."

Since the FTC issued its report in September, some entertainment industry leaders have taken much needed steps to beef up self-regulation. For instance, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Co. and MGM have said they will no longer market R-rated movies to underage audiences; Columbia Pictures began giving more details on the reasons behind particular ratings (advertisements for "Charlie's Angels" warn parents that the PG-13 movie includes "action violence, innuendo, some sensuality, nudity"), and the National Assn. of Theater Owners promised earlier this month not to show previews for R-rated movies to audiences waiting to see G- and PG-rated films.

However, these new standards should not be implemented helter-skelter, but rather industrywide. Specifically, the industry should establish codes that prohibit target-marketing of children, impose sanctions for violations, commit to not advertise the most gratuitously violent R-rated movies during TV shows with predominantly young audiences, and increase compliance at the retail level by, for example, requiring clerks to check IDs before selling or renting adult-rated entertainment.

Finally, no regulatory scheme can be effective without parental involvement. Kurt Hall, chief executive of United Artists Theater Co., recently said that parents have not exactly been urging him to stop underage children from seeing movies. "I get the most calls from parents who are mad that we haven't let their kids in an R-rated movie," he said.

The entertainment industry should stay ever mindful of the alternatives to vigorous self-regulation: Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) have suggested they may even back legislation requiring the entertainment industry to regularly report to the FTC on its marketing practices, as the tobacco industry has been required to do since 1967.

Scapegoating Hollywood has long been a popular sport among legislators unable to reach agreement on more substantial issues, and given the partisan fervor now gripping Washington, a revival of such scapegoating does not seem remote.

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