WASHINGTON -- This is one cliffhanger that Hollywood hopes will have a happy ending. As Congress reconvenes Sept. 4 after a summer-long recess, the entertainment industry continues to keep a wary eye on a bill that may completely change the way studios market their movies to youngsters. It could also affect the way retailers market and display movies, music and games.
The Media Marketing Accountability Act (MMAA), a bill supported by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) along with Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Reps. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to fine entertainment companies that are found to market adult material to minors. Specifically, it would fine any entertainment company up to $11,000 per day per violation for engaging in "false and deceptive advertising practices," according to the bill.
MMAA was proposed earlier this year after a scathing FTC report last September that found that the motion picture, music recording and electronic game industries routinely market adult-rated products to children under 17.
While the FTC found marked improvement in the way the entertainment industry markets products to children, many of their findings raised cause for concern. According to the report, the FTC unveiled that 80% of the movies rated "R" for violence that were selected for the study were marketed to children under 17. The study also revealed that children under 17 were frequently able to purchase tickets to R-rated movies without being accompanied by a parent or guardian. Children under 17 also can often buy music recordings and video games with parental advisory labels on them, the study found.
The FTC did not return phone calls to SN.
Dan Gerstein, communications director for Lieberman, said the senator is waiting for the results of a follow-up report by the FTC this fall to gauge how aggressively he will push this issue.
Gerstein said Lieberman's bill proposal was a direct response to the FTC's September 2000 report on marketing violence to children. He said Lieberman "thought the practice of marketing R-rated movies and M-rated video games to children was indefensible and it undermined the ratings system." He said if the industry failed to self-regulate, "the senator would seek legislation to authorize the FTC to set a standard." According to Gerstein, that report propelled the senator to take action.
Lynn Becker, press secretary for Kohl, said Lieberman and Kohl are still in the process of recruiting more co-sponsors for the bill, which already include co-sponsor Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Becker said the bill is still pending, but no specific hearings for it have been scheduled.
Industry observers said Lieberman and the backers of the bill have a tough fight on their hands.
Sean Bersell, vice president of government affairs and member communications for the Video Software Dealers Association, Encino, Calif., said that he anticipates that Lieberman "will push this issue, but there is great opposition from the entertainment industry, Constitutional scholars and First Amendment advocates."
Specifically, at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing entitled the "Examination of the Entertainment Industry's Efforts to Curb Children's Exposure to Violent Content" in late July, Bersell said that House members "expressed that they won't approve legislation along those lines."
Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, New York, said Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, which was assigned the bill, may "consolidate several bills [involving similar topics]) and hold one hearing on the general concept of media violence."
Bersell said there is also a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to "get it going on parallel tracks to keep the process moving."
With the major flack the bill has received from various groups, the process may be slow.
"This bill is counterproductive and it would cause studios and manufacturers to abandon the voluntary ratings system," Bersell told SN. He pointed out that this bill is based on a "faulty premise" that an "R" rating on movies, an "M" rating on video games and an "explicit lyrics" sticker on music products indicate that the entertainment industry has determined those products inappropriate for consumers under 17.
"These are only guides and warnings for parents to determine whether they are appropriate for their kids," he said. "They are not intended to be a definitive value judgment -- it's not supposed to be a precise system."
Robin Bronk, executive director for the Creative Coalition, New York, a nonprofit arts and entertainment advocacy group, said the bill is "an end run toward censoring content." She pointed out that if the MMAA passes, "for the first time, the government would be the monitor and police of creative material, and be in power of punishing those not in compliance." Instead, Bronk said the Creative Coalition advocates media literacy as a possible solution.
"Parents need to be responsible and accountable," Bronk told SN. "The government cannot be a baby-sitter."
Moreover, Bersell said that non-rated products would not be subjected to the same harsh penalties because the bill applies only to rated products. He said that the consequence could be that studios would no longer rate their products to avoid potential prosecution, and "parents would not receive the helpful information in regards to ratings."
Johnson agreed. He said the bill would "penalize the marketing of fully protected First amendment material."
Some entertainment-industry distributors cheered these Congressional efforts. Video Group Distributors, Clearwater, Fla., which distribute titles to supermarkets -- including Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa -- said the bill would help curb some Hollywood excesses.
"Studios have to be hit in the pocketbook -- that's the only thing that matters to them," said Mary Anne Gross, chief executive officer, VGD. "Unfortunately, Hollywood puts out too many over-the-line movies, and this [bill] would [build] more control."
Other industry observers saw the bill as a positive step toward providing more guidance for parents and forcing entertainment marketers to be more accountable for their actions.
Ranny Levy, president of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based nonprofit organization that seeks to promote positive viewing experiences for children, said the bill "is giving guidance for people to make a choice. That's not censorship." She added, "I can't see any downside to [the bill] -- it's the right thing to do."
If the bill passes into law, video rental sales would likely suffer, according to Bersell.
"It may cause supermarkets to not carry R-rated products, or it may cause them to treat [R-rated] material like cigarettes and put them out of easy reach of consumers," the VSDA official said. "Given the number of R-rated movies, it would undermine any video section."
Johnson said if the MMAA does not pass by the end of the 107th Congress in December 2002, it would have to be introduced all over again. "It could take years," he said.