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Ratings deal threatens lawmakers’ television reform plans

July 13, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ New detailed TV ratings are in the headlines, but four members of Congress contend that such on-screen warnings do nothing to fix what’s really wrong with television: the shows are offensive.

The lawmakers _ Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Joe Kennedy, D-Mass. _ are pushing legislation to require that early-evening television programs be free of sexual innuendo, deletable expletives or sly euphemisms for crude language.

But a deal that other lawmakers made with the TV industry may prevent the bills from going anywhere.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Commerce Committee chairman, and seven other senators promised industry leaders they would oppose, among other things, legislation aimed at creating a ``family viewing hour.″ The assurance, similar to ones made by key House members, was in exchange for the industry’s agreement to adopt stronger voluntary program ratings.

That agreement bodes ill for the new ``family viewing″ proposals, which would grant television networks a limited exemption from antitrust laws and allow them together to reinstate and develop voluntary programming standards.

Sponsors want to encourage production again of safe shows like ``Happy Days″ and ``Little House on the Prairie.″

But what constitutes safe ``family friendly″ programs and who decides? In the early 1970s, ``All in the Family″ featured Carroll O’Connor as the politically incorrect Archie Bunker. It sparked a national uproar over what language and topics were appropriate for prime-time television, but the program was tame by today’s standards.

Sponsors of the bills insist they would give government no control over broadcasters. ``Any guidelines or programming standards the industry chose to adopt would be purely voluntary and could not be enforced by the government in any way,″ Brownback said.

Groups that want to clean up TV programming like the ``family hour″ bills.

``We wholeheartedly support the bill because ... it allows the networks to do something to clean up the content of programming,″ said Mark Honig, executive director of the conservative Parents Television Council.

``It doesn’t mandate or legislate anything from Capitol Hill but actually puts the burden on the industry to resolve this problem.″

The industry is not impressed. It thinks the bills violate broadcasters’ free-speech rights.

``We cannot support the bills because of the First Amendment implications and the fact that we’ve been there before,″ said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. ``Essentially, the family viewing hour was dropped because of the antitrust and the First Amendment implications back in the late 1970s.″

Television networks followed a self-imposed set of standards until a federal court ruled in 1982 that provisions restricting sale of advertising violated antitrust rules. The broadcasters’ group threw out the entire code in January 1983 on the ground that it made broadcasters vulnerable to antitrust lawsuits.

Since the demise of the broadcasters’ code, some conservative groups say, the time slot once known as ``family hour″ has turned into the cringe hour.

Despite the popularity of mild-mannered, family-friendly shows like ``Touched by an Angel,″ today’s children are deluged between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. by ``filthy language, sexual innuendo and perverse story lines,″ the Parents Television Council and the conservative Media Research Center said in a study released in May.

It examined 93 hours of programs from Jan. 30 to Feb. 26. Obscenities were uttered at an average rate of just under one an hour, and there were 60 references to sexual intercourse _ one every 1 1/2 hours.

``In their race to the bottom of the entertainment barrel, the networks, I think, are in a situation where they believe perhaps that sex and violence sells, which I think is a misreading of the American people,″ Rep. Smith said.

Elliot Mincberg, legal director of the People for the American Way, a liberal group Norman Lear helped found to counter the religious right, said he sees nothing wrong with a new ``family hour″ policy so long as it is truly voluntary.

But he cautioned:

``What’s family viewing today may be very different from what family viewing was yesterday. Today, my guess is that `All in the Family’ would be considered family viewing, even though that was one of the specific targets of the family viewing hour 20 years ago.″

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