Time for Tougher Standards?

A pair of recent government reports are taking aim at violence in entertainment media. The Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission in separate studies call for greater restrictions on the distribution and marketing of violent movies, TV shows, video games, and music with explicit content.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings and the glare of presidential politics, both reports are likely to gain wide attention in the coming months. In its study commissioned by Congress, the FCC concluded there’s strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short-term.

It recommended that lawmakers consider adopting regulations that would limit violent programs to late evening, when children aren’t watching, and create a mandatory ratings system. It also proposed requiring that consumers have the option to select cable channels on an a la carte basis so they can refuse ones they don’t want. The agency argues legislation could be tailored narrowly enough to avoid running afoul of First Amendment safeguards.

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, who has championed the a la carte option as a way to empower parents, wrote that, “while the Constitution protects the right to speak, it certainly doesn’t protect a right to get paid for that speech.”

The FCC proposals have already drawn criticism from civil liberties groups and the cable TV industry as overly intrusive. Cable providers are also loath to adopt changes like an a la carte option that might disrupt the economics of their business.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) is reviewing the report to see if any of the recommendations should be incorporated into legislation he plans to introduce by June. In 2005, he co-sponsored a programming control act, S-616, with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Texas), though the bill never passed.

Because the FTC report doesn’t call for further government oversight, it may not prove as controversial. The FTC found that while the film, video game and music industries are generally complying with voluntary standards, they are using new online outlets to promote mature content to underage audiences.

Tracking viral marketing for the first time, the agency found that few advertiser-created pages on MySpace or YouTube contained prominent ratings information. Of 20 R-rated movies, 18 were advertised on sites — including the Cartoon Network — where more than a third of the audience was under 17. The movie industry was also faulted for the proliferation of unrated DVDs, which add material that may go beyond an R-rating.

The FTC recommended that all three industries consider adopting new standards, or tighten existing ones. Whether political pressure following the Virginia Tech shootings adds any weight to the proposals may be tested by the planned June release of Hostel Part II, in which American college students studying abroad are abducted, tortured and murdered. Trailers for the gory sequel are already widely available online.

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