SEATED in the ballroom of Washington's Willard Hotel last week, the heads of NBC, Capital Cities/ABC, CBS, Walt Disney, CNN, MGM, and MCA - the handful of chieftans who control what we see on TV and in the movies - formed a row of dark, tailored suits and color-coded tans. From where we reporters sat, the gray line of silver-white coiffures was especially impressive.
The members of this group had saved their own skins - and maybe the rest of us - by their decision to go forward with a TV-rating system and V-chip technology to block objectionable programs - two restrictions they previously opposed.
The V-chip isn't the ideal solution for young people's lack of moral values. And it might not survive the lawsuit that the industry threatened to bring when the House and Senate voted to include it in the new telecommunications law. But the industry's embrace of the rating system and its display of social concern is a step in the right direction.
The chieftans acted from cold calculation, mostly. The new law says if they don't produce a rating system within a year, the government will issue one itself. They complained that government-ordered ratings infringe on their free-speech rights, but they apparently decided a lengthy court test could boomerang in the court of public opinion.
Also, some powerful people, including Senate majority leader and Hollywood-basher Bob Dole, want broadcasters to bid for the spectrum they thought they would be loaned for free to make the transition to digital TV. In coming months, if the Dole-led ''make 'em pay'' faction wins - and it might - the chieftans may have to spend as much as $70 billion for the right to stay in business.
Almost as threatening is the recent Supreme Court decision to review its 1992 order upholding the ''must carry'' rule, which says cable operators have to carry local broadcasts. If the rule is overturned, many medium-sized and small broadcasters could be hurt along with the bigger players.
Finally, the national political debate has shifted to the plight of working families, with their lost or insecure jobs, stagnant wages, and their belief that moral and civic values have weakened. In a season in which pols on all sides are flailing big corporations, it would be hard for these silky entertainment moguls to emerge from a meeting with the president and defend bringing violence, sex, and profanity into American homes.
Of course the group ducked discussions about spectrum auctions or must-carry court action at the Willard press conference. They said they had decided to approve a rating system because Jack Valenti offered to lead them. Mr. Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, earned his silver scalp 27 years ago when he got the film industry to agree on today's ratings system. Meanwhile, it will be ''several years'' before V-chips appear in the 25 million new television sets sold each year, according to the Electronics Industries Association.
Carrying through on their promise involves risks for news and entertainment companies. NBC chief Robert Wright said he didn't know how advertisers would react, but CNN head Ted Turner blurted: ''There are going to be a lot of companies that aren't going to advertise for a program that has the rating. It's going to cost quite a lot of money.''
Tony Cox, executive vice president of Viacom, gives this example of how views on advertising can change: American automakers once abhorred references to safety in their ads. ''Ten years ago ... they didn't want people who drove and owned cars to be reminded of how dangerous they really were,'' Mr. Cox argued at a forum at Columbia University. Today, almost all automobile ads stress safety features. ''We could get to a point where having ratings is considered a good thing by advertisers and not having ratings is considered a bad thing,'' he said.
TV's cold-war truce
Of course there is no rating system or electronic widget that will foster children's moral growth. Ratings and V-chip technology are only good for blocking some of the garbage. Nevertheless, this is a watershed - a truce in the cold war between concerned parents and an industry used to profiting from giving youngsters the opportunity to watch 40,000 murders and 200,000 violent acts on TV by age 18.
As Mr. Turner said, ''We looked at the vote. Over 90 percent of the members of Congress voted for the V-chip bill.... We got the message that either we're going to do this or it's going to be done for us.''