To the Letter
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MARGARET WARNER: Now to our discussion. Decker Anstrom is president of the National Cable Television Association. Democratic Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts sponsored the original legislation mandating the V-chip. Dick Wolf is a television producer and creator of several TV series, including “Law and Order” and “New York Undercover.” And Eric Mink is television critic for the New York Daily News. We asked NBC, the only major network to refuse to sign onto this agreement, to join us, but the network declined.
Mr. Anstrom, why did the industry finally agree to this?
DECKER ANSTROM, National Cable TV Association: Well, in the end, Margaret, what the industry did was listen carefully to what parents were saying to us. And what they said was, I think, as the Vice President, who played a very constructive role throughout this process, said a few minutes ago, the initial system is helpful, but we want additional information that gives us some hint of what the content is in a specific program so we can make better choices about what our kids are going to watch or shouldn’t watch on television. And that’s what this system we designed today does, I think.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, are you satisfied that now this new system will give parents what you think they need?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY, (D) Massachusetts: Yes, I am. I believe that this system finally includes the information, the information on excessive violence or sex or language that parents find offensive; breaks it into categories that parents will find useful; and it allows them to program it out for their own children, depending upon the age and the maturity of their own children in their own home. And I think it’s a tremendous step forward, and I think that the industry and the parents groups who have constructed it deserve a lot of credit.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Dick Wolf, when you were last on this show in December, you called yourself an advocate of a no-ratings system. Does that mean you’re unhappy with this latest development?
DICK WOLF, Television Producer: Well, I’m disastrously unhappy with the latest development. I think that this is exactly–I congratulate Ed for getting exactly what he wanted, which is a content-based system, but at the same time a content-based system is just another word for censorship. And the reality of the situation is that I am looking forward, I hope the guilds take their–the step that they announced today that they will go to court, and I applaud Bob Wright for being the only member so far–
MARGARET WARNER: The chairman of GE who owns NBC.
DICK WOLF: Well, he’s the president of GE, or NBC that is owned by GE, but he is the one broadcaster who’s come out and said that this essentially is censorship, and there is no way that anybody can rationalize a system that essentially decides what adults can watch is free from First Amendment problems on a massive level as the Supreme Court already pointed out, and the family hour dispute twenty years ago and two weeks ago by a 7-2 vote on adult content on the Internet.
MARGARET WARNER: Can you explain just a little more why you think adding content ratings amounts to censorship.
DICK WOLF: Because what you have now is people deciding what is appropriate content; that an age based system is something that the movies have been dealing with for 30 years. Everybody knows what the parameters are, but even in the same household you are going to have a mother who may see a scene and think that that’s gratuitous violence, and a father may see the same scene vis-a-vis his 10 year old and think that that’s a perfectly acceptable action sequence. But there is not going to be any continuity in the way people appreciate these ratings or rate them themselves. And I think that anybody who claims that a system can quantify and qualify a hundred hours of–hundreds of hours of programming today, twenty-four hundred hours a day in a hundred station market, are going to be satisfied with this system over the long haul. Nobody is going to be satisfied with it. The parents groups are still going to want as much control over the content as they can get, and adults are going to want the freedom to see what they want to see.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Decker Anstrom, from the industry perspective, I mean, does he have a point? Are you concerned this is sort of a backdoor way to censorship?
DECKER ANSTROM: No. I think–I certainly respect Dick, who’s one of the creative geniuses of this country and has contributed a great deal, with continue to contribute a great deal to television. But this is not censorship. Television networks and broadcast stations continue to air what they air today, and things in the future. All we’re doing is putting some labels and information so parents can make a simple decision: Is this something I want my child to watch; that we’ve total editorial discretion to the producers, to the networks, to the station executives. What we’re doing is giving parents a little bit of information so they can make smart decisions.
MARGARET WARNER: Eric Mink, how do you see this, and what effect do you think this will have?
ERIC MINK, New York Daily News: Well, I’m certainly closer to Dick Wolf’s position than anyone else’s. I think the system that they’ve come up with–actually the previous system I wasn’t too wild about, but this one adds a level of complexity that to me renders it useless. You can say that it’s giving people more information. In fact, there’s going to be such an alphabet soup of letters attached to these ratings, and the application of them across the schedule is going to be so uneven and unfair that I can’t imagine they’re really going to be of much value to the parents, themselves. Quite honestly, whatever these public opinion polls are showing, and you and I both know that you can create a poll to get whatever answer you want, I don’t get a sense that the public–the parents–the people are very much concerned about it. They can handle TV in their own homes just fine.
DICK WOLF: I’ll take that a step further. The bottom line is, as Rep. Markey knows, there has been no outcry from parents groups, and nobody is talking to the station owners and the broadcast group owners. They’re not getting any complaints about the existing system.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me let Congressman Markey back in this. Do you want to respond to that?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, over 75 percent of parents that have been polled on this issue over the last three years always come back with the same result, which is they want more information; they want to have it in their own home. They want to make the decisions for their own family. HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, they already rate for sex and for violence and for language. Parents find that very helpful. We’re not breaking some new ground here; we’re only extending it to the broadcasting networks and to other cable networks, but in no way has that ever been considered to be censorship, that HBO and Showtime tell the parent how much sex is in a program, and I just think they’re completely off base in their reading of what the impact of this is.
ERIC MINK: Well, with all due respect, Congressman, the HBO and Showtime, the pay cable channels, have put those labels on long before there was any interest in Congress in this matter. And what we have, in fact, is the law that you helped write that mandates the V-chip essentially says to the producers of television shows either you come up with a system that’s to the government’s liking, or the government will create a panel, and they will create a system that is to our liking. To me, that’s unwarranted and really inappropriate government intrusion into the content.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: But if you read the next paragraph in the law at no time are broadcasters required to send any signal. Only if they voluntarily want to send a signal do they have to. So I think you’re misreading, in fact, what the ultimate intent of the legislation was, which is to have a voluntary agreement, which is what we have today.
ERIC MINK: Well, there’s voluntary and there’s voluntary. I don’t think the letter that you sent to Jack Welsh, chairman of GE, today in which you criticize NBC for not signing onto this and mention just in passing the public interest that GE is supposed to be serving with its stations, that’s saying voluntary but there’s a pretty big club hanging over your head.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask Decker Anstrom, how voluntary do you feel this is, or do you feel, as Eric Mink said, that this is really government intruding into this area?
DECKER ANSTROM: I think that the media industry constantly has to be careful about government coercion or efforts to control content. And in some instances we may be close to the line in this debate, but I think this is a voluntary system; some people obviously have chosen not to participate, but, you know, I really think we have to step back for a minute and look at this in a broader context. The television industry is a very influential industry. It reaches into every home. The average home, a TV set is on for more than six hours a day now. We have a lot of government benefits, both the cable industry and the broadcast industry, in order to bring information, entertainment, and education. And with those benefits and with that influence, we have some responsibility, and before we get sort of into these sharp lines of censorship and First Amendment and that, I think we have to step back to what is it we’ve done today. What we’re doing is we’re providing some simple labels which simply says to a parent there’s a level of violence or sexual content or language or dialogue, that’s a caution flag that says this may not be appropriate for your kids. That’s all we’re doing here.
MARGARET WARNER: Dick Wolf, you were trying to get back in here.
DICK WOLF: Yes. I just have to raise one issue, and I know politics makes strange bedfellows, but, Ed, we’ve known each other for a long time. I have to ask you a very simple question. We are now dealing with the subject–and we’ve had these discussions before–with the creative community’s concern over this obsessive attention to violence on television, and we’ve had this discussion. Even Sen. Simon admitted that it was not the problem as it was built up to be on network television, which is my purview. But I am increasingly uncomfortable with the focus on televised violence and fictional violence as opposed to the real violence on the street. And Sen. McCain, who has ram-rodded this thing from the Senate side, is an individual who voted against the five-day waiting period, voted against the Brady bill, and there is this huge dichotomy, if we’re concerned about violence, how can we have the leader on the Senate side be somebody who has not taken into account the violence against children that are manifest with handguns on the street, the fact that five children under five a day are now dying because of these new smaller pistols that are readily available that they can literally get their hands around.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman, as you start to answer that, would you then also go into how firm a commitment–you all have sent letters to the industry essentially saying if you don’t go along with this, or when this is instituted, we’ll lay off legislation affecting these areas. How firm a commitment is that?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, to answer Dick’s question, Sen. McCain and I differ on the issue of assault weapons and the Brady Bill, but Sen. McCain did an excellent job on this issue of violence on television. And I think that he should–
DICK WOLF: You see no dichotomy here. Real people are dying in the streets, and there is film violence on some shows, but the most violent show on network television is now Walker Texas Rangers, and all he does is kick people.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: But at the same time, let me say, Vice President Gore, who has led this effort over the last three years, supports the Brady Bill, supports the assault weapon ban, and has also been the leader on the V-chip. You know, parents in this country believe that there’s a four-alarm fire of teenage violence and pregnancy and drugs and sex, and they believe that a lot of it is influenced by the culture that comes through the television set. They want some way in some families to block it out, to delay the aging process of their children. And that’s all we’re really saying. This is not a panacea. We don’t hold it out to be. But it’s one more tool for parents. And as a result, those of us who are satisfied with this compromise that has been put together are willing in Congress to back off for three years, to give the industry and the children’s advocates a chance for three years to make it work, to implement it, to put the tools in the parents’ hands, and then to come back and revisit it after three years. And I think that Congress will be good for that promise.
DECKER ANSTROM: Let me add to that, if I can, Margaret. I think Congressman Markey–who’s been an extraordinary leader in this debate from the beginning and who played a key role in making this compromise possible–makes a key point here. It’s really a point that Chairman McCain, who also played an important role in this debate, asked at the beginning. How can we expect to have a ratings system in terms of the first system that can’t be approved by the PTA? And that’s what we’ve achieved now. And the PTA is hardly a radical organization. This is a mainstream organization that has said–made a very reasonable comment. Give us some additional information. That’s what we worked out; it’s not perfect. We’re going to have some problems with this in implementing it. Hopefully, we’ll get some patience and support from Mr. Markey and others, as they’ve said they’ll provide. But, again, I think the bottom line on this is that we’re responding to a genuine issue out there, and we’re going to make a good effort to make this system work.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Eric Mink, you go ahead.
ERIC MINK: I’d like to make two points. One, what we’ve really done today is create a system that allows these public–these special interest groups to target shows, actually makes the producers and the networks label their own shows as targets, so that they can got to advertisers and say, hey, you shouldn’t be advertising on any shows that have “V” on them, or “L” on them, or “S” on them. Those shows are often, as in the case with let’s say “NYPD Blue,” or even “Law and Order,” in which nobody dies in–well, people die but you don’t see it on “Law and Order,” those types of shows which are sometimes the most high quality shows, the most enriching, the most revealing of the human spirit are likely to get targeted by these groups and their advertising support gets withdrawn. So the shows are then removed from the air, which I think you have to wonder about whether that was–that was really the effort. Now–
DICK WOLF: It’s what Reed Hundt stated. He stated out front over a year ago that the whole game plan here was that certain shows would end up with labels that would be advertiser unfriendly, and they’d cancel; that’s economic censorship.
ERIC MINK: The other point, and this is sort of a cynical one that I would add as to what actually happened today, and it’s admittedly cynical, but what happened was that most of the TV industry, except for NBC, surprisingly enough, the No. 1 network, said, that we will cut a deal, and if we cut the deal, we’d like you to get off our backs not just on this issue, we have a lot of other issues on the table with regard to Congress and the FCC, issues of spectrum allocation, digital conversion, analogue channels, all these things which billions of dollars are at stake, and I think the industry, in my opinion, mistakenly believes that by cutting this deal, they can get some slack on that–
MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen all, I’m terribly sorry, but we have to leave it there. But thanks very much.