Seven months after a Federal Trade Commission report blasted the movie, video-game and music industries for marketing adult-rated violent content to children, the FTC this week unveils an update to the report that threatens to quickly rekindle the congressional firestorm.
One person familiar with the new report's details said the update wouldn't be as extensive as the September report, but would track the effect of changes made by the entertainment industry after the initial report. However, it couldn't be determined whether the new report will conclude if those changes have been sufficient.
There are indications, however, that some legislators feel the industries aren't moving fast enough. An aide to U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said the ex-Democratic vice presidential candidate is likely to join Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and perhaps others in introducing legislation this week that will give the FTC legal authority to act against marketers who rate a product for one audience, then market it to another.
"Our impression is that the movie industry has made some strides forward, but still has some problems and no enforcement mechanism," said Dan Gerstein, the Lieberman aide.
The FTC's September report, which was requested by President Clinton, accused the industries of "pervasive" and "aggressive" marketing of violent products to children. The language quickly reverberated through the presidential campaign as well as through Congress in several contentious Senate hearings.
The report, based in part on an examination of marketing documents, said that although movie marketers were rating violent movies as best-suited for older teens, they had ignored those ratings and used focus groups, advertising and media buying to target the films toward younger viewers. The report also accused video-game marketers of advertising violent games for mature audiences in publications whose biggest readership was under 17, and claimed music marketers failed to do enough to enforce content warnings.
The FTC's fix for some of the problems -- limiting advertising of violent content to publications and TV shows for which 65% or more of the audience is over the appropriate age -- drew criticism from ad groups and some of the industries. They said the majority of viewers were adults in almost all the media vehicles the FTC criticized.
The industries contented that their ratings systems were intended only as guides, and that much of their marketing was legal because parents retained the right to make the choices for their children. This infuriated senators, especially after movie-studio heads initially declined to testify at a hearing of the Commerce Committee headed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Eventually studio executives did come to testify and several announced their studios would take steps beyond those announced by Hollywood. By then, angry senators had asked FTC Chairman Bob Pitofsky to determine if the agency had legal authority to act and to do two follow-up reports, the one coming this week and another in September.
In a November letter to Senators, Mr. Pitofsky said he didn't believe the FTC had authority to act. He warned senators against trying to enforce the industry ratings systems through the FTC, saying that enforcement could be on dubious constitutional grounds, and self-defeating by prompting industries to simply weaken their codes.
"Even if the commission could overcome the considerable difficulties it would face in proving cases, there are also questions about whether such actions would advance the goal of providing increased protection to children," he wrote.
Officials of groups representing the three industries last week said they were hopeful the report would demonstrate the progress each industry has made.
"There is going to be some din, and I think we will be part of the mix," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association. "I don't think we can escape, but hopefully we [video-game makers] will be recognized for what we have done."
Ira Teinowitz, Advertising Age. April 23, 2001
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