Violent TV shows to air warning 4 networks hope to avert imposition of rating system

June 30, 1993|By Edmund L. Andrews | Edmund L. Andrews,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Hoping to stave off a federally imposed system of ratings for violence on television, the nation's four broadcast networks have agreed to provide a warning to parents just before shows laden with mayhem are shown.

The warning would also be made available to newspapers and magazines that publish television listings, allowing them to establish what would amount to a special coding for violent shows.

The agreement, which will be announced by top officials of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in Washington today and could take effect during the next programming season, comes amid a growing outcry in Congress about the depiction of violence in entertainment programming and its possible harmful effects on some viewers.

Many members of Congress have warned television executives that they would press for legislation mandating a rating system like those at movie theaters and perhaps even specific limits on the number or time slots of shows filled with violence.

The new agreement reflects a compromise between key lawmakers and the television networks.

The announcement comes just one day before top television officials were scheduled to testify in the House on legislation that would combine a rating system with new technology to let parents block out violent shows. The status of that hearing was unclear yesterday evening.

Under the planned arrangement, which would be much easier than a rating system for the networks to deal with, the networks will precede a designated show with a parental advisory about its violent content, urging parents to consider whether the program is satisfactory for children.

The advisory might also be shown during commercial breaks, especially on longer programs.

The networks themselves will decide which shows need the special advisory, which would have the same wording on all networks. The networks have also pledged to make these advisories known in all their advance marketing and promotional efforts.

The agreement marks the first time the networks have agreed to take specific action in response to complaints about television violence.

Supporters of stricter regulation generally welcomed the agreement but cautioned that it may be too tame to have any real impact.

"It's a start, but it's a tepid start," said William S. Abbott, president of the Foundation to Improve Television, a Boston-based organization that has been pressing lawmakers and regulators for stricter rules on television violence.

"This is the first time they've agreed to do anything more than voluntary codes" on program standards, he said.

"The problem is that it leaves out the millions of children who watch television unsupervised, and that's just a fact of life when so many families have two parents working."

The deal was negotiated largely in Washington, at the behest of two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.

In exchange for the networks' action, the lawmakers are expected to refrain from proposing more stringent rules.

Both men have held high-profile hearings on television violence in the past several weeks, and both have strongly suggested that Congress might have to impose some kind of rating system or time restriction on broadcasters if they did not take action on their own.

But the issue has posed constitutional difficulties because any direct restraint might run afoul of the First Amendment right to free speech. Congress has repeatedly passed legislation that limits sexually explicit programming to late-night hours, but federal courts have rejected the laws on numerous occasions.

Mr. Abbott's group has assembled numerous studies that indicate a statistical link between street violence and the amount of violence on television, although other groups say no cause-and-effect relationship has been established.

Mr. Abbott has argued in a petition filed with the Federal Communications Commission that violent television programs should be restricted to the hours after 10 p.m. He has also argued that a violence warning should be posted on the screen throughout a program, a move he said that would discourage many companies from advertising on such programs.

Congress passed a law in 1990, drafted by Mr. Simon, which gave the television networks an exemption from anti-trust law so that they could jointly develop new standards governing sex and violence.

The networks did reach agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines that call for reducing shows that "glamorize" violence. But the guidelines embodied little more than the standards each network had already adopted and have had little noticeable impact.

In hearings with television producers in early June, Mr. Simon and others expressed repeated frustration with what they said was a lack of progress, but they held out the hope that the entertainment industry might still act on its own.

A major conference of television industry executives on the topic is planned for Aug. 2 in Los Angeles.

Mr. Markey, head of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has proposed that broadcasters transmit a special "V" code for violent shows as part of the television signal and that television manufacturers be required to install a computer chip that would let parents block out shows that feature that code.

At a hearing last week, representatives of the electronic industry acknowledged that the idea poses no technological difficulty.

But the networks have been fighting the proposal because it could deprive them of many potential viewers.

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