It's hard to disagree with the senator's assessment. But does Hollywood have a reason for concern? Is there any reason to believe that what Variety calls Lieberman's "shrill record of Hollywood bashing" will translate into concrete proposals that will make a difference in what kids will see? For that matter, whose responsibility is it to monitor what kids see and hear?
I think the answer to these questions is "no," "no," and "yours." I'm not an apologist for the entertainment industry. On the contrary, I can cite dozens of films, television shows, and video games that I wouldn't let my son, David, watch. A film like the recent Jennifer Lopez vehicle, "The Cell," with its misogynistic mayhem is, despite its stylishness, literally indefensible--a point driven home in an interview I saw with its co-star Vincent D'Onofrio. Asked about the film's graphic violence, D'Onofrio expressed reservations but added, "After all, I am an actor." Thanks for clearing that up, Vincent. In the PR war against government interference, Hollywood is its own worst enemy.
It's an easy call, then, for officials and candidates for elected office: Faced with media violence, they act as if government can make a difference in what kids see and hear. A Federal Trade Commission Report released this week chastises moviemakers and producers of video games for marketing violent wares to kids. Studies like this one, and those that connect onscreen action with violent behavior, bait officials into promising tough action against Hollywood in the name of our families and kids.
The sound you don't hear is Hollywood trembling in its boots. For starters, any legal limits on entertainment products are on very shaky grounds. If, as the Supreme Court has held, cable companies can't be forced to scramble signals on porno channels, what chance is there that courts would uphold legal action against studios for violent content? As Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, put it, "Such legislation would be dead on arrival in the first federal court that reviews it."
What's more, and I hate to sound cynical (really!), no one in Los Angeles takes Gore's pledge seriously. As Valenti, an old-school politician who served in the Johnson Administration, put it, "If I were running for office, I'd be trashing the movie industry myself."
This is especially clear when you consider the important role Hollywood money plays in political campaigns. For candidates--especially, but not exclusively, Democrats--"Hollywood" and "fund-raiser" are as closely associated as "peanut butter" and "jelly." Do you really think that elected officials are going to risk seriously taking on an industry that has become a major cash cow for candidates, especially Democratic ones? How would Babs Streisand respond? Would they be allowed back on the set of "The West Wing"?
By pointing out the legal and political hurdles to government action, I don't mean to suggest that there isn't anything that government can do to help folks filter out Hollywood's worst effluent. It can help by making sure that everyone who gives a damn about what they and their kids watch has the information necessary to make informed decisions. Networks should be required to really educate viewers about what symbols such as TVPG and TV14 shown before the start of programs mean.
Of course, none of this matters if you don't care, and if a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center is any indication, many parents don't. The study found that the percentage of parents who could decipher the meaning of the symbols has actually dropped in the past four years, from 70% to 50%. What's more, the study found that 70% of parents surveyed considered "Oprah" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" educational television and, as such, should count toward the federal requirement of three hours of "core educational programming" each week.
This level of indifference and ignorance makes it hard to escape the conclusion that a lot of the concerns about what kids are watching could be addressed by knowing what it is they're watching in the first place. I know it isn't always possible. But it isn't as hard as some folks make it sound, either. A kid who comes home to an empty house after school will find his viewing choices limited to "Oprah" and a soap. While both leave a lot to be desired, they're not what has Gore threatening Hollywood. The violence on VHS or video games that are the source of concern are images that parents have some control over. Whether they exercise that control is another matter. Likewise, how many parents can name the movies their kids see?
I'm not defending Hollywood. I make a living criticizing the stuff it puts out. But films like "The Cell" and video games like "X" are neither burglars nor tsunamis. They neither sneak in nor come out of nowhere. Our kids aren't defenseless against this stuff. We don't need to wait for office holders to "save them." All we need to do is get off the couch and get a clue.