In the aftermath of the Littleton massacre, the senate attempts to regulate televised violence with the introduction of the Safe Harbor Bill

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated June 04, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a big difference between watching a Senate subcommittee on C-SPAN and seeing one in person. For one thing, there’s no mute button. No matter how boring the proceedings get — and the wonk-athon under way in room 253 of the Russell Senate Building is so dull it could melt the retinas out of Brian Lamb’s eyeballs — there’s no way to flip channels.

Still, to a lot of folks in entertainment, this particular hearing should be riveting. Held by Sen. Ernest Hollings, its topic is the Safe Harbor Bill, Hollings’ proposal to ban violent TV programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. For two and a half endless hours, a panel of lawyers, media experts, and psychologists sit before the committee to discuss whether TV shows like Monday Night Football and When Animals Attack help turn high schoolers into mass murderers.

”This is the first hearing we’ve had on this subject in 30 years,” the Democrat from South Carolina drawls as he strolls back to his office after it’s over. ”We’re being stonewalled in the Senate, but like my friend Jesse Jackson says, ‘We shall overcome.’ ”

Not if Hollywood has anything to say about it. In fact, Hollings’ bill and a slew of other post-Littleton proposals aimed at toning down violence in entertainment — including legislation to make it illegal to film violent images on public property, as well as the idea to make it a federal crime to sell a ticket for an R-rated movie to a minor — are threatening to trigger the bloodiest battle between L.A. and D.C. in decades. Already the winds of war (or at least the windbags) can be heard rumbling on Capitol Hill. And Hollywood is blowing back just as hard.

”To some people in Washington, Hollywood is a big fat target,” bristles Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti. ”It’s easy to say, if we cut the wires and darken every TV set, it’s going to bring peace and tranquillity back to our streets. But by piling on Hollywood, they’re distracting from the real issues — like guns.”

Of course, piling on Hollywood isn’t exactly unheard of in Washington. Conservatives have been saving the republic from the likes of Murphy Brown and Ellen DeGeneres for years. But these latest troop movements in the Culture War are potentially much more provocative. The image of all those teenage corpses in Colorado has given the issue a heightened sense of seriousness and urgency. Also — and much more ominously for Hollywood — it’s no longer just Republicans jumping on the pile.

”There is still too much violence on our nation’s screens, large and small,” declared President Clinton, upbraiding Hollywood during his weekly radio address on May 15. There are ”too many creators and purveyors of violence…too many vulnerable children who are steeped in this culture of violence.”

To a lot of the creators and purveyors listening in — especially the ones who helped donate $2 million at a Clinton fund-raiser in Hollywood that same day — the President’s put-down was beyond galling. ”To be publicly spanked by the same hands that are very frequently open and looking for money in this town is somewhat hypocritical,” complains producer Steve Tisch (American History X, Forrest Gump). ”And to characterize this industry as irresponsible is in fact a very irresponsible statement.”

The President had gotten an even colder shoulder from Hollywood a week earlier, when he asked dozens of studio heads, actors, and music execs to sit down with gun manufacturers for a White House rap session on youth violence. Unsure what they had in common with makers of semiautomatic weapons, many turned him down. Valenti, Gloria Estefan, and erstwhile Melrose Place hunk Andrew Shue were among the few who showed up.

Although Valenti has been holding summits of his own — including a May 24 caucus attended by virtually every studio chief in town — so far Hollywood hasn’t hit on a unified strategy to deal with the Washington offensive. Some have decided the best defense is capitulation — or else they’ve sincerely discovered a newfound sensitivity to on-screen violence. Last week, for instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans found themselves dangling mid-cliff-hanger when The WB yanked the second part of the show’s season finale ”out of sympathy and compassion” for the Littleton families. The episode, which will air later this summer, contained a scene in which a high school graduation ceremony explodes into violence — when the mayor turns into a 60-foot serpent and attacks the students. CBS, meanwhile, nixed a whole series from its fall lineup — the Donnie Brasco-style Mafia drama Falcone — because network head Leslie Moonves found himself ”cringing” watching the pilot. ”It wasn’t in bad taste,” he says. ”Is murder bad taste? But we felt a responsibility not to put it on now. It just didn’t feel right.”