October 29, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

”The regulation of violence (on TV) is constitutionallypermissible.”-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno”We’ve got this-what is it, Buffcoat and Beaver, or Beaver andsomething else they had-I haven’t seen it, I don’t watch it, butwhatever it is, it was at 7 p.m . (MTV) put it on now at 10:30, Ithink. They’ve pleaded guilty, and they’ll do it as long as you and Ihave hearings.”-Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.)

”I feel that any time three networks conspire to do threeAmy Fisher movies, they deserve this.”-TV producer Brandon Tartikoff

”If they do try to do anything about (TV violence), they’re goingto get their asses handed to them.”-TV producer Steven Bochco

You know that ”information highway” we keep hearing about-thesoon-to-be-paved electronic path that will connect entertainmentprogramming with phone lines and credit-card bills to create an easy,endless ride of amusement and gratification? Well, how much fun is itgoing to be to cruise the info highway if you have to swerve to avoidyoung people lying on the center line, while also taking care not tohit Beavis and Butt-head standing on the shoulder of the road,hitchhiking not with their grubby thumbs but with their even grubbiermiddle fingers aimed at you? You just might conclude, along withAttorney General Janet Reno and what sometimes seems like everyAmerican east of Hollywood, that the future of entertainment, um,sucks.Reno’s appearance before a session of the Senate CommerceCommittee on Oct. 20 was the latest step in the government’s waragainst TV violence, begun earlier this summer by Sen. Paul Simon(D-Ill.) and others. ”Too often America has become numb to violence(on TV) because it drowns in it, day in and day out,” Reno said,warning that if ”immediate further voluntary steps are not taken anddeadlines set,” she would try to help legislative action along. (”Ithought this was a little odd coming from Janet Reno,” remarked ConanO’Brien on Late Night the next evening. ”The last thing she put on TVwas that shoot- out in Waco.”)All of a sudden, popular culture-the stuff of leisure-timeescapism-has become complicated, controversial, messy, confusing. Tothose who create the entertainment, this situation is an awfulannoyance, a bumpy ride; to those who consume, the entertainmentitself may be nothing less than a death trip. The cartoon charactersBeavis and Butt-head, whose names Senator Hollings couldn’t quite getstraight during the hearing, have been blamed as the inspiration fora fire that killed a 2-year-old girl in Moraine, Ohio (EW, Oct. 22).

And The Program, a college-football movie from the Walt DisneyCompany’s Touchstone Pictures, is thought to have provoked a stuntthat has killed at least three people. In separate incidents, MichaelShingledecker, 18, of Stoneboro, Pa.; Marco Birkhimer, 24, ofBordentown, N.J.; and Jeremy Wayne Hebdon, 16, of Leander, Tex.;apparently acted out a scene from The Program in which somefootballers play a form of chicken by lying down on the center lineof a highway. No one is hurt in the movie’s scene; Shingledecker,Birkhimer, and Hebdon were run over and killed, and at least twoother youths have been injured.On Oct. 19, Touchstone announced that to discourage furthercopycat tragedies, it would cut the scene (see box on page 51) fromall 1,222 copies of the film, at a cost to the company estimated at$300,000 to $400,000.

Industry reactions to Touchstone’s decision tend, as so much inHollywood does, toward the pragmatic. Sara Risher, production chiefat New Line Cinema, says, ”I don’t feel The Program did anythingirresponsible by having that scene in the film. It didn’t advocatethe behavior. It was just crazy kids. It was a good PR move forDisney to cut it out.”The Program had been flopping like a dying fish at the box office,and even a Disney executive says the studio cut the scene ”forreasons of corporate image. Disney is a company with a certainreputation that is of significantly – more value to us than whetheror not a chicken scene in The Program came out.” It’s not as if thisnotion of editing to defuse a potential problem never arose before.New Line’s PG-rated 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, saysRisher, was scrutinized: ”At one early test (screening) of the film,one of the Ninja kid characters died (violently) and the moment gotfar too serious. We didn’t want to have it and cut it out.”As separate controversies, the Senate hearings, The Program cut,and what’s-their-names-Beak-nose and Bupkes?-are isolated pop-cultureeruptions. Taken together, however, they suggest just how rattled,resentful, and rancorous relations between the government, theentertainment industry, and the average consumer have become. TraylynEvans, 16, a Dallas moviegoer recently interviewed just after seeingSylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man, said, ”You should be able to seea movie and not go out and shoot someone. It’s a story. It should betreated like entertainment.” On the other hand, moviegoer RickyFigueira, 18, of Honolulu, says, ”I think a lot of violence inentertainment is so realistic that it gives kids something to thinkabout-and they may try it. I do think things should change. I thinksome kinds of violence on TV should be regulated. But with movies,gee, I don’t know. ”Well, the Beverly Hills Gun Shop’s George Waite thinks he knowsabout the way movies affect real life: ”There’s a whole new,different type of customer. The movie industry probably helps that.When Die Hard and Lethal Weapon came out, there was an influx ofpeople asking for Beretta 92F’s, the firearm in Lethal Weapon and DieHard, the same one the military uses, the gun of choice of gangs.”It’s this sort of anecdotal evidence that gives weight to thesenators’ criticisms, even as people in the industry suspect lower,more political motives. And contrary to the standard assumption thatit’s the conservatives who always want Hollywood to clean up itsexcessive act, journalist- screenwriter Mark Horowitz (Almost You)sees the current brouhaha as a liberal gambit: ”This is an easy shotfor the Democrats. It’s a social issue they can safely do. One theoryis that if (President) Clinton can look conservative on socialissues, he can raise taxes.”A major Hollywood studio chief, reflecting bitterly on Reno’sinvolvement in the pop-culture wars, says, ”This administration isnot about principles. It’s about political expediency. So I don’t seeit here any more than I see it | on gays in the military oradventurism in Haiti or Bosnia. I can’t say I’d be any more angryabout this betrayal than any other.”Even Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education William Bennett hasstrong opinions about the attorney general’s foray into showbizbattling. ”This notion that the federal government should step in andlegislate is just ridiculous,” he says. Is the entertainment industryresponsible when viewers emulate violent acts in the media?”Responsible in the sense of legally? I don’t think so,” saysBennett. ”Morally? A little bit. Who’s more responsible? Well, theknucklehead who put himself out there in the road.”Bennett’s bottom line to the TV industry: ”Regulate yourselves.Use common- sense standards. Put the garbage on late.”Anyone who enjoys seeing fat-cat TV execs squirm had only to watchCBS president Howard Stringer during the Oct. 20 hearings. Soon afterStringer proclaimed that CBS’ present schedule was the least violentin 25 years, the presiding senators tried to sandbag him by screeninga clip from the CBS sitcom Love & War depicting a slapsticky barroombrawl. The moment would have been absurd were it not so chilling: TheLove & War scene was obviously silly, harmless stuff, yet here weregovernment officials looking grim, as if witnessing a bloodbath. Andthere was a network president anemically trying to convince hisinquisitors of their own ignorance of standard sitcom behavior. Thesedays, CBS is airing ads for an upcoming miniseries that proclaim,”Return to a time of courage; Return to Lonesome Dove.”Courage-whadda concept, eh?At present, the Senate panel is considering three TV-punishingmeasures, including one sponsored by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)that would require the Federal Communications Commission to issue a”report card” for violent TV shows four times a year, detailingspecific acts. This kind of thing makes Chris Crowe, executiveproducer of the gun-crazy syndicated series The Untouchables, livid.”The violence debate is old, and the real debate was debated whenthey wrote the Constitution, goddamnit! They want to tell us what wecan see. To violate the perfect music of the Constitution to put af — -ing Band-Aid on a problem and divert our attention is a f — -ingsin. If Thomas Jefferson were alive, he would walk into SenatorSimon’s office and kick his ass.”There’s no timetable for the passage of any proposed legislation,and it appears the battle will drag on while all sides attempt tohave the last word. , Michael Pressman, co-executive producer forthis year’s Emmy sweeper Picket Fences, believes Congress will ”haveto do something, or (they’ll) look weak. And it will have to befought.”In the immediate future, former NBC president Brandon Tartikoffpredicts a wave of self-censorship will hit Hollywood. ”Thelikelihood of (a TV producer’s) selling any sort of action piece ortrue-crime drama is probably at its nadir,” he says. ”Down the road,if I’m trying to do a miniseries-which I am-and there’s an act ofviolence pivotal to the dramatic repercussions, I’d hate to be calledin on the carpet by the network to defend why something had tohappen. But I guess I can foresee that day coming.”Producer Frank Price, former chairman of Universal and ColumbiaPictures, says, ”I felt a real chill when I heard Janet Reno and thesenators, that somehow the government could tell us what we canwatch. Generally, creators of movies and TV shows try to reflectsociety. They have an obligation to appear real in order to come offas credible to their audience. That means, in urban societies today,there’s a lot of violence there, a lot of people killing each other.”

In a prepared statement to the Senate Commerce Committee (a windytract its author dubbed ”a covenant”), Jack Valenti, president of theMotion Picture Association of America, said, ”What is required is areturn to what William Faulkner described as ‘the old verities, theold universal truths.”’ One presumes Valenti rejected another ofFaulkner’s aesthetic maxims-the one about how he’d rob his mother ifit would enable him to write another good book-as being tooinflammatory in the present context.Yet that sort of thing is what is missing, by and large, in thiscontroversy: the righteous claim of an artist to do anything he orshe pleases, and damn the consequences. In the current atmosphere,any specific defense of the items under attack amounts to a daringact. Take John Kricfalusi, for instance, the animator responsible forcreating Ren & Stimpy, the gross dog-and-cat cartoon that must now beseen as the evolutionary precedent for what’s-their-names, you know,Brownnoser and Bong-water. Kricfalusi would seem to be treading ondangerously unpopular ground when he says, ”I would especiallyencourage more slapstick aggression (in cartoons), because we allhave aggressive tendencies and we need outlets for them.” Even hehedges his bets, though: ”Let’s not do it realistically,” he adds.”Let’s do it where it’s obvious fantasy.”In 1978, film critic Pauline Kael wrote, ”People feel that there’sviolence out there, and they want to shut it out. Movies, more thanany other form of expression, are capable of bringing us to anacceptance of our terrors; that must be why people are afraid ofmovies.” In 1993, Kael’s idea seems as true of TV-or rock and rap,for that matter-as it is of films.But, Anne Rice, there’s still hope for you: If you really don’twant boyish Tom Cruise to play your brooding vampire Lestat, all youmay have to do is convince Janet Reno that bringing Interview Withthe Vampire to the big screen will result in a rash of copycatneck-biting.”You should be able to see a movie and not go out and shootsomeone. It’s a story. it should be treated like entertainment.”Traylyn EvansMoviegoer

”This is an easy shot for the Democrats. One theory is that ifClinton can look conservative on social issues, he can raisetaxes.”Mark HorowitzScreenwriter

”They want to tell us what we can see. If Thomas Jefferson werealive, he would walk into Senator Simon’s office and kick his ass.”Chris CroweTV producer

”What is required is a return to what William Faulkner describedas ‘The old verities, the old universal truths”’Jack ValentiPresident, Motion Picture Association of America

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