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Hollywood Off Congressional Radar--for Now

Regulation: In wake of FTC report, the industry is hoping some self-policing will keep lawmakers at bay.

October 29, 2000|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The entertainment industry has won a victory as Congress heads toward adjournment without passing a single piece of legislation that deals with marketing violence to children. But there is not a lot of celebrating on Hollywood's back lots or in its executive suites.

In a sign of the changed nature of the Hollywood-Washington relationship, the government's success in influencing entertainment no longer can be measured by the number or type of laws churned out. Instead, Hollywood finds itself locked in an assembly line of political scrutiny that promises to poke and prod the industry with reports, missives, hearings and public shaming well into the foreseeable future.

Dead for this year are bills that would have allowed entertainment corporations to confer on marketing strategies without violating antitrust laws. The measures were intended to give the industry latitude in reining in questionable marketing practices that target younger audiences. But industry officials successfully lobbied key lawmakers, maintaining that the legislation was tantamount to a coerced universal rating system and that the industry needed more time to study it.

Very much alive, however, is the surveillance that began with the Federal Trade Commission's explosive report last month that found that adult-rated music, movies and video games are directly marketed to children younger than 17.

Those 104 pages opened the door to the inner workings of Hollywood marketing, and Congress promptly inserted its foot, marking the beginning of the new relationship between the giants of politics and the titans of entertainment. Hollywood now is regarded as a suspect industry that, if it cannot be regulated, must be monitored.

This oversight already has spurred change in a business that claimed from the start it did nothing wrong.

Some studios now are including in film advertisements explanations for their R ratings, one of the promises made in a 12-point plan drawn up by the eight major studios days after the FTC report was issued.

Recent newspaper ads for the DreamWorks Pictures movie "Almost Famous" include in the R-rating box: "Language, drug content, brief nudity." Similarly, ads for the Warner Bros. re-release of "The Exorcist" note that the film contains "strong language and disturbing images."

Other film studios point parents toward more information, even for movies rated PG-13, which were not the focus of the FTC's study. Ads for the 20th Century Fox film "Bedazzled," for example, carry this instruction: "For ratings reasons, go to www.filmratings.com."

Other segments of the entertainment industry still are hashing out how to respond to federal pressure that they change their ways. Some record companies are exploring ways to make lyrics available before purchase, and some online music retailers have begun including parental advisory labels.

Major video game manufacturers are reviewing their marketing strategies for action figures that appeal to children but are based on adult-rated games. Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Assn., said that he will meet soon with FTC officials for a general discussion of appropriate target marketing, the sort of deference to government that once would have seemed unthinkable.

The entertainment industry bought some time, for now, when it headed off the antitrust legislation in the House and Senate that some lawmakers sought to wedge into end-of-the-year spending bills. The measures proposed to help Hollywood develop "voluntary guidelines" for marketing to children. Many in the industry saw that as coercion in disguise.

The measures were shelved but not forgotten, ready to be resurrected next year. "We are going to take a wait-and-see attitude, and we trust they are operating in good faith. Trust, but verify," said Eric Hotmire, spokesman for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

Brownback--a leading critics of Hollywood's marketing practices--and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sent separate letters to eight studio heads Oct. 17 giving them 30 days to provide a "comprehensive, detailed plan" of their in-house marketing strategies. The letters followed up on promises made by the executives when they testified last month before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs and on which Brownback serves.

McCain's letter asked for details of all "plans and policies relating to marketing R-rated movies to children under the age of 17," a signal that Washington would be neither easily satisfied nor derailed.

And there still is more to come from the FTC. The commission is studying whether federal laws against unfair and deceptive advertising can be used to stop the marketing of adult-rated movies to children. FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky has made it clear that he favors industry self-regulation but would not rule out bringing a case if Hollywood fails to act on its own.

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