Senators push safe-harbor bill

Hollywood Reporter
February 16, 2001
By Brooks Boliek

WASHINGTON --- A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Thursday designed to reduce the extent of violence in primetime television.

The bill, a version of Sen. Fritz Hollings' safe-harbor legislation, requires federal regulators to study the effectiveness of the V-chip program-blocking device and its concomitant ratings system. If the FCC finds them ineffective, the bill directs the agency to establish a "safe harbor" that would shunt violent programming to late-night hours.

In addition, it directs the FCC to establish rules that prohibit violent TV programming that the V-chip cannot block. Hollings, D-S.C., and others have criticized the television industry for failing consistently to rate violent programming. Hollings contends that an FCC rule on the issue would encourage the broadcasters, cable operators and satellite distributors to become more diligent in applying the V rating.

In a statement released explaining the measure, Hollings recites a list of programs that have purportedly led to "copycat" incidences, the most recent when a Connecticut teenager set another teen on fire in an apparent imitation of a stunt on MTV's "Jackass" (HR 1/30). He also mentions incidents involving "The Basketball Diaries" and professional wrestling.

"How much copycat violence will it take?" he asked. "How many violent acts will be committed, how much vandalism, destruction, injury and death has to occur before we act here in Congress? As we have seen in Littleton, Colo., and in Paducah, Ky., violence in our culture is begetting violence in our youth."

The networks and cable systems instituted the ratings system and V-chip after passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which ordered the installation of the chip and the development of a "voluntary" ratings system. The networks and cable systems rate shows for their appropriateness for an age group, and all but NBC and Black Entertainment Television include content descriptors "V" for violence, "S" for sex and "L" for language.

Hollings contends that the V-chip and the ratings system has been ineffective in stemming the tide of violent programming that is aired. He said that is especially noticeable during "sweeps weeks," when the broadcasters measure their audiences. The measurement tells them what they can charge advertisers for spots on their shows.

"We know from studies that there is more violence on television during primetime, during 'sweeps weeks' and even on weekend afternoons," he said. "Why? Because violence sells and money talks, and no amount of self regulation and no amount of antitrust exemptions is going to change the profit incentive."

Broadcasters disagree, contending that the V-chip is the way to go.

"We do not support a violence safe harbor," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. "We think the V-chip solution coupled with the ratings system is serving American parents well."

Joining Hollings in sponsoring the legislation are Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Herb Kohl, D-Wis.

The bill would cover all broadcast, cable and television services, except premium and pay-per-view services. It is unclear if it covers sports programming. Hollings' safe-harbor bills in the past have exempted news and sports programming. Similar bills have been defeated in the past.

The bill is modeled after the FCC's indecency safe harbor, which requires broadcasters to air indecent programming only between 10 p.m.-6 a.m. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of an indecency safe harbor.