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Senate Committee Examines Entertainment Ratings

On July 25, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing to examine entertainment ratings and how well they are working for parents. The House held a similar hearing on July 20 (See The Source, 7/20/01, p. 8 ).

Opening the hearing, Committee Chair Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) stated, “There have been general complaints that the ratings don’t provide parents with enough information about content, about the levels of sex, violence, and vulgarity in each product to make the right choice for their children.” He explained that the hearing was in response to “a letter sent to policymakers last month by the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), a coalition of researchers, medical groups, and child development experts, that called for replacing the existing formats with a new uniform rating system.”

Ranking Republican Fred Thompson (R-TN) cautioned, “We find ourselves in a supervisory capacity…with regard to a private industry who’s engaged in a constitutionally protected activity,” and added, “when it comes to legislation or regulation, we do not constitutionally have the power to do that.”

Many of the witnesses said that they, too, were opposed to a federally mandated universal ratings system. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), who testified before the committee, asserted that “the best route to take is for the entertainment industry to responsibly self-regulate, rather than the Congress regulate.” He added, “It is, I believe, the best way to keep our children, and speech, protected.”

Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute said he was asked to address the issues in the NIMF letter. “I share many of the concerns raised in the Institute’s letter about the quality of some of the entertainment that has been produced and distributed in America for some time.” He continued, “To go to the heart of the matter, I would ask…given the limits imposed on Congress by the Constitution and by the First Amendment, why are these hearings even being held? And why are they being held before, of all things, the Committee on Governmental Affairs?”

Speaking on behalf of the research community, Dr. Dale Kunkel of the University of California disagreed. “It is time to seriously consider the prospects for a universal rating system that could be applied across all media,” he said, and added, “That consideration will not come without strong prompting from the public, and hearings such as this are an important catalyst to help focus the attention of already busy and overwhelmed parents on the importance of media in their children’s lives.”

“As a mother, I ask this Senate committee to consider just how difficult the current ratings and marketing issues are,” stated Laura Smit of the Lion and Lamb Project. “Yes, parents need to exercise responsibility. But to do a half-way decent job, we need help. We need honest ratings. The First Amendment does not stand in the way of food labels, or cigarette warning labels, or accurate labels on entertainment products,” she said.

Representatives from the Creative Coalition, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry of America and the Interactive Digital Software Association all defended their positions. Software spokesperson Douglas Lowenstein told the committee that he wanted to dispel some myths about the video game industry. “The primary audience for video games is NOT adolescent boys,” he said. “The average age of the 145 million Americans who play video games is 28 years old,” he explained, and added, “43 percent of those who play computer and video games are women.”

Jack Valenti of the MPAA was particularly opposed to legislation (S. 792) introduced by Senator Lieberman that would prohibit targeted marketing to minors of adult-rated media and would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to penalize those companies that violate the provision with civil fines up to $11,000. “The Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001 (S. 792) treads heavily on the spine of the United States Constitution,” said Mr. Valenti. “The bill immunizes those producers who do not rate their films, and penalizes those producers who do voluntarily rate their films and give information to parents. The bill would inevitably cause abandonment of the voluntary MPAA ratings system, which has worked so well for so long,” he said, admitting that every now and then he takes issue with the rating of a film. “But if there are errors in the accuracy of a movie rating, it is a matter of a judgment call and not an exile in integrity,” he added.

Representing the recording industry, Hilary Rosen read a statement by rap artist Russell Simmons that called congressional efforts to limit the lyrics of recording artists “racist” because many of the artists criticized are African American. “We choose to speak, and artists choose to express themselves, separate from government approval, classification or permission,” said Ms. Rosen. “We hope this committee will honor that freedom as deeply as we respect the sincerity of its concern,” she added.

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