Senate squabble over TV violence

Rockefeller pushes for curbs; others have reservations

WASHINGTON -- A senator on Tuesday accused media companies of cowardice, claiming that the TV business puts profits before the health of the nation's children, but he appears to lack the support needed for any new government constraints on content.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., attacked media companies for their choices and threatened them with legislation during a Commerce Committee hearing delving into the impact that violent television content has on children.

"To be blunt, the big media companies have placed a greater emphasis on their corporate short-term profits than on the long-term health and well-being of our children," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller did not introduce legislation aimed at reining in content during the hearing but said he intended to write it and drop it into the hopper within the next few weeks.

"I fear that graphic violent programming has become so pervasive and has been shown to be so harmful (that) we are left with no choice but to have the government step in," he said.

Rockefeller might want to force a legislative solution, but other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle didn't want to go that far.

Pointing to the success of "The Sopranos," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said there was an appetite for that type of programming and that an attempt to regulate it likely is doomed.

"We tried to regulate behavior before," Lautenberg said. "It was called Prohibition. It didn't work because the public appetite was not there."

Lautenberg told the committee that the nation's priorities are askew when pictures of soldiers' coffins are banned at the same time the government tries to rein in fictional violence.

"If you see anything more violent than the war in Iraq and try to understand why we can't see flag-draped coffins coming in because we don't want to see the violence brought onto our society, then there is something terribly hypocritical about the whole thing," he said.

The panel's senior Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, also seemed unenthusiastic. "I think we have to tread a lot softer than you indicate," Stevens said. "I'm fearful of going too far."

Fox Broadcasting Co. president of entertainment Peter Liguori told lawmakers that there is "no causal link" between TV violence and violence in young people, an issue that has been hotly debated.

"Without a causal link, we cannot justify imposing content limits on our media," he said.

Liguori told the committee that Fox and the other networks took great pains to ensure that shows with violent or sexually charged content were clearly labeled, citing "24" as an example.

"A show like '24' -- we want to make absolutely sure the public knows what it gets," he said.

To Rockefeller, that was a dodge. "We have the industry blaming parents for their lack of oversight of children's television viewing," he said. "This is cowardly. We have a responsibility to do better."

The hearing included a brief video montage of clips of graphic scenes of violence and rape played for the packed committee room and compiled by the Parents Television Council. Lautenberg asked Rockefeller to end the tape before it aired, saying that the committee didn't need to see it. The clips shown included footage from FX's "The Shield" and "Rescue Me" and CBS' "NCIS."

FX Networks president and GM John Landgraf issued a statement after the hearing saying that the network stood by those shows, which were produced to air after 10 p.m. and rated TV-MA for mature audiences 17 and over.

"We respectfully submit that adults 17 and over should have access to these shows, which are among the most critically acclaimed in television," Landgraf said. "These shows have large audiences who appreciate the morally complex, difficult, adult themes they address."

Televised violence has become a hot-button issue recently as the FCC released a report urging action on the issue and laying out several options Congress could pursue if it were to write legislation.

Among the chief recommendations was one requiring the cable TV industry to offer programs on a per-channel basis, something FCC chairman Kevin Martin has long supported. A so-called a la carte system would allow parents to avoid paying for and receiving channels that contain content they find objectionable. Martin was scheduled to testify Tuesday, but Rockefeller said that Martin's newborn son had become ill and was hospitalized, forcing him to cancel his appearance.

Laurence Tribe -- a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University representing a group called the "ad hoc media coalition," which includes the studios, broadcast and cable companies -- cautioned the panel about pursuing legislation, urging them not to "sacrifice free speech on the altar of protecting children."

Rockefeller chaired the meeting at the request of regular chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who was not present. Inouye has expressed support for an anti-TV violence law.