Where should studios draw the line for violence? -- Big government criticizes studios for aiming violence at kids

By Gillian Flynn
Updated December 22, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

The eight studio execs lined up in front of Sen. John McCain like reprimanded children. McCain was steaming about a Sept. 11 Federal Trade Commission report packed with proof that the entertainment industry was peddling violent, R-rated material to children. It seemed to feed the post-Columbine parental nightmare: ads for gun-addled flicks lurking between kid-enticing TV shows, 10-year-olds filing into test screenings of films as bloody as an abattoir…

McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, scolded the suits (representing Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, DreamWorks, MGM, Paramount, Sony, and Universal) for their naughty behavior — and he extracted promises that there’d be no sequels. In turn, the studios ponied up — and still stand behind — a 12-point plan: They’d stop knowingly test-screening R-rated movies like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Disturbing Behavior to minors, they’d appoint compliance monitors at each studio, etc. McCain was unimpressed.

The studios themselves couldn’t have concocted a tighter drama. Or better characters — from the icy senator to angsty Al Gore, who, with running mate Joe Lieberman, goosed his presidential campaign by vowing to punish the studios if they didn’t clean things up. Talk rumbled that the studios might face class-action suits for false advertising.

But will this drastically alter what kids are exposed to? Senator McCain, meet Sister Souljah. Election years give politicians a chance to swipe at pop culture, but the attacks rarely bring about change. ”To criticize the movie industry is high reward, low risk,” says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. ”Do something the NRA gets upset about, they’ll come after you with guns blazing and beat you at the polls.”

Predictably, the outrage seemed to wilt after Election Day, dampened by a Nov. 21 FTC opinion that left the McCain camp slightly defanged. To bring charges of unfair advertising against the studios, the FTC suggested, would ultimately be attacking the movies themselves — a free-speech no-no. For now, McCain’s side says it will ”work with the entertainment industry to substantially enhance and enforce voluntary codes of conduct.” But as the issue slips into its quadrennial cooling period, the studios may be left to their own devices. Says Valenti: ”I’ve heard nothing from Senator Lieberman or Senator McCain. We’re just going to do what we said we’d do.”