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Time for Industry Execs, and Congress, to Own Up


Trix are not good for kids. Walk down the children's cereal aisle of your local supermarket and check out the nutritional information: Pokemon Toasted Oats has a whopping 14 grams of sugar per serving; Fruit Loops and Golden Crisp (a "wholesome" puffed wheat cereal) have 15 grams of sugar per serving. If that doesn't put you into a diabetic coma, check out the sugar quotient in your grocery's soft drink section.

We all know sugar is bad for kids--look at the alarming rise in diabetes that has been making headlines lately. But no one's holding congressional hearings about it. Kids consume junk food for two reasons: because they like it and because there's a highly profitable junk food industry that uses clever advertising to target and seduce youthful consumers.

They could be using that formidable marketing muscle to entice kids to drink milk or eat multi-grain cereal that wouldn't rot kids' teeth, but if your core audience is 14-year-old boys and they thrive on sugar rushes, then the big profits are in Lucky Charms, not high-fiber oatmeal.

See where I'm going here?

For the past two weeks, the entertainment industry has been in something of a sugar-rush tizzy after a stinging Federal Trade Commission report--and subsequent Senate Commerce Committee hearings--charged that the vast majority of top-selling restricted movies, video games and music were deliberately marketed to children as young as 12. The movie industry came out looking especially bad: The report found that of 44 violent, R-rated movies, 80% were marketed to children under 17.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 4, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Health analogy--A commentary on marketing R-rated movies to teenagers in Calendar on Sept. 25 suggested that excessive sugar consumption can cause diabetes. In fact, there is no medical connection between the two.

To make matters worse, while a handful of music and video-game executives appeared at the hearings, none of the top studio executives bothered to show up, citing a variety of lame excuses. There's no doubt that the Commerce Committee played dirty pool, giving moguls less than 48 hours to digest the report. But these are the same guys who pay $3 million for a script after an overnight peek: They can read pretty fast.

The arrogant behavior calls to mind a "West Wing" episode in which a David Geffen-esque Hollywood billionaire threatens to cancel a fund-raiser because the president hasn't come through on a request. "Don't screw with me," the mogul tells a presidential aide. "I've been president a lot longer than he has."

On the day of the hearings, I found DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg lunching with ex-20th Century Fox chief Bill Mechanic. When Katzenberg was teased about being on the lam, he protested--accurately as it turned out--that he'd never been invited. Not everyone had such a good explanation. The studio no-shows prompted a tongue-lashing from committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who bluntly observed that the industry's "hubris underscores the lack of corporate responsibility so strikingly apparent in this report."

Thanks to their hubris, instead of having two days of bad press, they've had two weeks. Now they'll be put squarely in the spotlight at a follow-up hearing Wednesday. And they should be.

Public scrutiny works, whether your product is shoddy tires--which can kill you--or distasteful entertainment, which the FTC report doesn't even try to link to violent behavior. When Washington appeared serious about enacting punitive legislation in the wake of the Columbine shootings last year, Hollywood got the message: Studios quickly squashed a number of ultra-violent teen movies, reedited others and put a lid, at least temporarily, on the widespread display of guns in movie ads.

But there's a much bigger--and messier--issue at work here that doesn't lend itself to political grandstanding or show biz executive sophistry: How should an entertainment company balance the demands of profit-making versus good corporate citizenship? It's no secret that we live in an era when the demands of Wall Street dominate entertainment company decision-making. The Oscars, Emmys and Grammys are a once-a-year gold medal for corporate responsibility. The rest of the year, we celebrate the corporate gunslingers who boost their company's value--and we demand the heads of the losers who lag behind in profits.

In the Works: Long Overdue Changes

The new hearings--and renewed threats of legislation--have already prompted long overdue activity. The Recording Industry Assn. of America is pushing record labels to accept some sort of lyric sheet availability, so parents can read Eminem lyrics and decide whether the rapper's "Marshall Mathers LP" belongs on the critics' Top 10 lists or in the trash. The Directors Guild of America has called for more detailed ratings, saying controversial, adult-themed films deserve a separate rating other than an NC-17. They're right: When "The Cell" and "Schindler's List" get the same rating, it's time to call the R-rating what it is: a travesty.

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