The Federal Trade Commission, releasing the results of a study requested by President Bill Clinton, said the movie, music, and computer and video game industries market such material to youngsters despite their own ratings systems that deem them inappropriate.
The Democratic presidential ticket moved quickly to shame the entertainment industry on the heels of the FTC report and to score some political points in the process.
Vice President Al Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, set a "six-month deadline" for the industry to either adopt and adhere to voluntary standards for rating material and marketing to children, or they said they would support "tougher measures" to hold the industry accountable.
Appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show Monday, Gore said, "Today Joe Lieberman and I talked about trying to give parents more help in protecting their kids from entertainment they think is inappropriate.... It's not about censorship, it's about citizenship, and that includes corporate citizenship."
Republicans were not to be outdone, however, and went on the offensive by highlighting the close campaign ties between the Clinton administration and the entertainment industry.
Texas Gov. George Bush's camp attacked what it called the "hypocrisy" of Gore's statements.
"Suddenly, Al Gore is telling Hollywood to clean up its act after aggressively cleaning out their wallets for the past year," said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett. "The best way to help families counter Hollywood's influence on our children is to elect Governor Bush, who will restore integrity to the White House and usher in a new era of responsibility."
The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics released data Monday claiming that Gore has received $929,465 in contributions from the entertainment industry and is poised to start three nights of fund-raising activities beginning Tuesday, underwritten by the biggest names in Hollywood and designed to bring in $8 million in contributions for the Democrats.
The Gore camp responded by saying that Democrats' decision to accept money from the entertainment industry does not affect their commitment to protecting children from violence.
"I presume we've taken money from a bunch of these companies," said a campaign spokesperson, who added it does not affect any policy decisions. "When we address public policy concerns, we do not evaluate who did or did not give us money, we evaluate what is the best policy for the American people. Giving parents tools to protect their kids is the correct step."
The Republican-led Senate Commerce Committee also will hold a hearing Wednesday conducted by Sen. John McCain on how to force the industry to respect violence ratings. Lieberman, D-Conn., will participate in McCain's hearing.
The FTC report could be a public-relations debacle for the entertainment industry. Today Universal Studios Motion Pictures Group Chairman Stacey Snider canceled a scheduled Wednesday appearance at the hearing, staff said.
The hearings could lead Congress to establish a legal rating system the entertainment industry must follow, or result in Congress giving the FTC more authority to oversee the industry to ensure that it follows the spirit of its own rating system.
The new report--"Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music, Recording & Electronic Game Industries"--shows many companies actively market products to children despite warnings and labels the industry has attached to those products indicating that they are suitable only for adults.
"Companies in the entertainment industry routinely undercut their own ratings restrictions by target marketing violent films, records, and video games to young audiences. These industries can and should do better than this report indicates," FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said.
According to the report, of the 44 movies reviewed by the FTC and intended for adult audiences, 35 were marketed toward children. All 55 music recordings labeled for explicit content were targeted toward children, and 83 of the 118 electronic games with a "mature" rating for violence were marketed directly toward children under the age of 17.
Clinton requested that the FTC compile the report after the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that resulted in the deaths of over a dozen students.
The hearing this week in the Senate is likely to contain not only a discussion of the relationship between violence and the entertainment industry but is likely to spill over into a debate over the availability of the tools to carry out that violence--particularly with respect to guns. Tom Diaz, president of the Violence Policy Center, is scheduled to testify before the Senate.
The report said that most experts agree that exposure to violence in the media alone "does not cause a child to commit a violent act and that it is not the sole, or even necessarily the most important, factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence."
But Clinton, speaking Monday, said, "We've known now for 30 years through some 300 studies...that regular, persistent exposure of children at young ages to indiscriminate violence tends to make them less sensitive to the real and human impact of violence in their own lives."
Clinton added, "You can't make a mockery of a system that you say has integrity. They say these rating systems mean something. They can't turn around and advertise to people that shouldn't see this stuff. And they can fix this."
"If the industry promises parents that it will not market violent material to children and then proceeds to do so, then the industry's practices could constitute false and deceptive advertising," Gore added, in an interview with The New York Times published Monday.
It's a new stand for the vice president, although his wife Tipper is known for opposition to explicit music lyrics. Lieberman has been a leading congressional critic of violent entertainment.
Ari Fleischer, spokesman for Republican presidential nominee Bush, said the Texas governor "believes the entertainment industry has to take personal responsibility for the products it provides to our children. And parents also have a role to play. We're all in this together."
Industry leaders questioned what conclusions the government could draw from scrutinizing Hollywood.
"If we are causing moral decay in this country, we ought to have an explosion of crime," Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said Sunday. "The exact opposite is happening."
He argued that any evaluation of the marketing practices of moviemakers can only be subjective and praised Hollywood's voluntary rating system.
"For almost 32 years, this industry has been the only segment of our national marketplace that voluntarily turns away revenues at the box office to redeem the pledge that we have made to parents," Valenti said.
Video-game makers stress that more than 70% of their customers are over 18. According to the Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry trade group, adults buy nine of every 10 video and computer games sold in the United States. Only 7% of video games sold and rated since 1995 fall into the mature category.
But public interest groups said the new study could expose efforts by the industries to circumvent their own labeling system. For example, creating children's toys based on an R-rated movie enables the industry "to go right ahead in a very surreptitious way to market to kids," said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education.
Some retailers have pledged to increase enforcement of the game code. Kmart announced last week that it would stop selling M-rated games to anyone under 17, using a barcode scanner that will prompt cashiers to ask youths for identification. Wal-Mart said it would adopt a similar policy.
Other chains, including Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Co., have stopped selling the M-rated games altogether.