FTC: Regs still not getting job done

Young kids still buying adult content, adult fare

Despite seven years of government scrutiny of the entertainment industry, young children are still able to buy R-rated movies, M-rated video games and music with adult lyrics, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday.

While the movie, music and electronic games industries generally have complied with voluntary standards regarding the display and ratings of their products, they continue to market some R-rated movies, M-rated video games and explicit-content recordings on TV shows and Web sites with substantial teen audiences, the FTC said in its fifth report examining the marketing of violent material to kids.

"Self-regulation, long a critical underpinning of U.S. advertising, is weakened if industry markets products in ways inconsistent with their ratings and parental advisories," FTC chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said. "This latest FTC report shows improvement, but also indicates that the entertainment industry has more work to do."

Unrated and "director's cut" editions of DVDs were of particular concern to the commission.

The report urges that the movie industry examine whether marketing and selling of unrated or director's cut DVD versions of R movies, which might contain content that could warrant an even more restrictive rating, undermines the current self-regulatory system.

The report also pushes the music industry provide more information on packaging and in advertising about why certain recordings receive a Parental Advisory.

Finally, it recommends that the video game industry place content descriptors on the front of product packaging and conduct research into why many parents believe that the system could do a better job of informing them about the level of violence in certain games.

While the commission expressed some concern, an MPAA spokeswoman said the industry was doing a good job despite some glitches.

"As today's report affirms, the movie industry is doing a good job overall providing information to consumers and marketing films in an audience-appropriate manner," MPAA spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg said. "We welcome constructive review, as we are constantly working to maintain the movie ratings system as the gold standard of parental information tools."

Industry critics, however, chose to highlight the darker side of the report. Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer called it a major wake-up call for the entertainment industry.

"We strongly support the FTC's recommendation that the industry revise its marketing and sales policies," Steyer said. "It would be a much-needed positive first step toward improving the media landscape for kids and families."

While no one was willing to commit to revision of their voluntary standards, Bo Andersen, president of the Encino-based Entertainment Merchants Assn., said they were taking the FTC's concerns seriously.

"The FTC also highlighted several other areas that need the attention of video game and DVD retailers," Andersen said. "EMA is committed to examining these recommendations closely and encouraging retailer adoption of the recommendations, where appropriate."

RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy defended the music industry's actions, arguing that music is a special case.

"Music is a unique art form that is subject to the interpretation of the listener, and so the parental advisory logo has proved to be a flexible tool to help parents make the best choices for their children," he said. "We appreciate the commission's comments and suggestions, and look forward to working with the commission."

The report includes results from the FTC's latest mystery shopping test where unaccompanied children, ages 13-16, were sent into retailers to make a purchase. The undercover shoppers found significant improvement by video game retailers, particularly in national retail chains, but little or no improvement by movie theaters, or DVD and music retailers.

According to the report, 39% of the young shoppers were able to buy an R-rated movie ticket in 2006, up from the 36% who were able to buy one in 2003, but down from the 48% of the shoppers who were able to get into an R-rated movie in 2001.

The FTC expressed particular concern with the increasing prevalence of unrated DVDs. The commission said retailers did little to restrict sales to unaccompanied children of such discs containing content that might warrant an NC-17 rating.

Children continue to be able to purchase music with explicit content labels, with 76% of the underage shoppers being able to purchase stickered music. While that is down from 2003's 83% and 2001's 90%, it is still a high number, the FTC said.

The report notes that ads for explicit-content music routinely aired on cable television shows and Web sites with a teen audience of 40% or more. The commission criticized the video game industry for its heavy advertising on Web sites popular with teens. Currently, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board prohibits ads for M-rated games on Web sites where the under-17 audience is 45% or more.

The report suggests that the ESRB is not adequately enforcing even this limited standard, the FTC said.

For the first time, the commission tracked trends in viral marketing, including social networking sites like MySpace, and viral video sites like YouTube. Advertisers often set up profile pages with industry-generated content or uploaded videos for users to then share on their own, such as posting music to their own profile page or e-mailing videos to friends. The report noted that few profile pages contain prominent rating information.

Although they are general audience sites, they reach a large number of children under 17 (HR 9/20).

The report also flags a new trend in gaming, mobile phone games, and noted several challenges they pose. For example, mobile phone game developers often do not seek ESRB ratings and they do not sell their products through traditional retail channels, instead licensing their products directly to wireless carriers. The report discusses industry efforts to provide some form of parental oversight in this fledgling area.

The FTC recommends that all three industries consider adopting new, or tightening existing, target marketing standards. It also urged retailers to implement and enforce tougher point-of-sale policies restricting sales of rated or labeled material to children under 17.