WASHINGTON — For the entertainment industry's heavy hitters in Washington, the morning was spent, once again, on Capitol Hill's hot seat.
The atmosphere was tense from the start of Friday's House hearing into the efforts of the movie, music and video game industries to reduce children's exposure to violence. Blaring from the loudspeakers as attendees arrived was the song "Kill You" by controversial rapper Eminem.
In the first of what may prove a long series of Hollywood-centric congressional hearings this year, legislators went on to slam the recording industry for doing too little to inform parents about the content of albums.
But even as some lawmakers used the bully pulpit to shame industry representatives--at one point trying to get a top music industry lobbyist to read out loud profane lyrics by Eminem--there were signs that Congress might be unwilling to go beyond tongue-lashings.
Most notably, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and other committee members indicated a reluctance to back legislation that would give the Federal Trade Commission authority to impose steep fines on entertainment companies that violate their own voluntary standards.
But few think the issue will go away quietly, especially now that the Democrats control the Senate.
The heated questions Friday were viewed by many who testified as a warm-up for next week's Senate hearing called by Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) to examine how well entertainment industry ratings systems are working for parents.
The focus Friday, at least, remained on the music business, which has been under heavy fire from lawmakers and parents' groups since being singled out earlier this year for doing little to respond to scathing FTC findings about Hollywood's efforts to sell mature-rated material to children.
The FTC findings--while for the most part praising strides made by the video game and movie industries--were cited by lawmakers backing a bill called the Media Accountability Act of 2001 as evidence that a stronger enforcement mechanism is needed to keep the industry in line.
The bill was introduced in the Senate in April by a group of Democrats led by Lieberman.
The effort has been condemned by industry executives, who argue it would violate free speech protections, a point reiterated Friday by Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti.
"Because of the 1st Amendment protections afforded these products, the commission continues to believe that vigilant self-regulation is the best approach to ensuring that parents are provided with adequate information," Valenti said.
He was backed by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Redondo Beach), who called the bill "dangerous" and warned against any attempts at censorship by the government.
Still, it was a long day for Recording Industry Assn. of America President Hilary Rosen, who later said the best thing about the hearing was that it ended.
Rosen, who declined a congresswoman's request that she read Eminem's lyrics, argued her industry faces a complicated equation when it comes to music ratings.
"It would be a lot easier to give them the solution they want than to sit there through these hearings," Rosen said afterward. "The challenge is to let people know that we do care about our community, but we also believe there are larger principles involved that deal directly with 1st Amendment rights."
In his remarks, Tauzin made it clear that he thinks some standards should be attainable.