Media violence may be easier tarred than regulated

As US lawmakers convene hearings on violence in the entertainment industry, but their options may be limited.

To many, it seems like a no-brainer: Exposing children to excessive violence in movies, music, and video games may be harmful.

But how to keep such entertainment away from the eyes and ears of youngsters is proving to be a vexing problem for would-be regulators - from Congress, to the presidential candidates, to industry executives themselves.

Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee spent the day debating how far lawmakers need to go - or legally can go - to control the dissemination of violence-laced imagery. The hearing follows Monday's release of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study, which claims that the entertainment industry has been pitching violent content to young children and teens.

What is to be done is under discussion, but everyone agrees that tighter regulation of this industry will be incredibly difficult.

One of the biggest hurdles is simply that the link between kids' behavior and violent movies, lyrics, and videogames is hard to prove with scientific certainty. Even when cause and effect are more conclusive - as in the case of tobacco and health problems - it took decades of battle in Congress and the courts to ban certain kinds of cigarette advertising and sales.

"This is not like the connection between [smoking and illness]. You can't draw that scientific conclusion," says Bob Alexander, a media consultant who works with movie studios, video-game publishers, and TV networks. "You might find that product objectionable and you might be afraid when you see a bunch of kids on the street, but those two things happen in your mind, not in theirs."

Still, those pushing for greater regulation of the entertainment industry believe they can act without such conclusive proof, so long as they don't trample the free-speech rights of artists and the public.

While regulating the content of songs or movies is prohibited, experts see wider latitude for controlling advertising for such products. Ads fall under the label of "commercial speech," that is, speech motivated by financial interests. The US Supreme Court has ruled that commercial speech is entitled to some protection under the Constitution - but also that it can be regulated, even if all that the ads claim is true.

Still, the free-speech questions are prickly enough that government usually opts for industry self-regulation - in everything from funeral homes to alcohol. Indeed, the liquor industry has voluntarily refrained from TV advertising of all hard liquor for almost 50 years.

"The FTC has broad jurisdiction over most sectors of commerce, but we encourage self-regulation," says Mary Engle, project director of the FTC report on entertainment-industry marketing practices. "It tends to be much more flexible and prompt than government regulation, and it can be even more effective."

Industries have been fairly amenable to voluntary advertising bans or self-imposed rating systems because they know "it is their best defense against government regulation," adds Elizabeth Lascoutx, director of the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau.

Currently, all four media venues - music, TV, movies, and videogames - have rating systems in place to help parents gauge what's appropriate for their children.

But rules for advertising - whom to target and in what media - are hit and miss in the entertainment industry. This week, in response to the FTC report, the Walt Disney Co. said it will no longer run advertisements for R-rated movies before 9 p.m. on ABC, the Disney-owned broadcast network. Other networks have their own, different policies.

Even if US lawmakers voted to regulate advertising or to set up a mandatory ratings system - ideas the entertainment industry will vehemently fight - children could still find ways to gain access to violent entertainment.

On TV, the loss of distinct hours for children's programming - and the advent of 24-hour cable channels such as the Cartoon Network - will make it harder to define what's acceptable advertising.

Then there's the Internet, a vast electronic world where children can access all sorts of violent or adult material. "The Internet is unlike anything that has ever been seen before," says Stephen Balkam of the Internet Content Rating Association, an England-based group that urges online companies to rate themselves and disclose what type of material is on their Web sites.

"I don't think we have the right balance now," says Mr. Balkam. "The industry should be challenged to get behind the self-regulatory efforts, but parents need to ... take the Internet seriously."

The fact that Congress passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998 shows that government will act if it perceives an industry is not moving fast enough, says Ms. Lascoutx. "It's going to be very interesting to see what comes out of these [entertainment] hearings," she says. "If there is any legislation, it will probably be tied up in court for so long, it will be a long time before anyone sees the effect."

The entertainment industry refused to take part in the Senate hearings and says it does not target children. Take, for instance, ads during TV's "Xena: Warrior Princess," mentioned in the FTC report. Mr. Alexander says "it's nuts" for the FTC to say: "We know that a certain number of children watch that show, so you can't advertise certain products."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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