Take that, Hollywood. Sen. Joe Lieberman pushes a new bill aimed at media marketing

By Brian M. Raftery
June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sen. Joe Lieberman hasn’t been to the movies much lately. (The last film he saw: the PG-13-rated ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” just before the Oscars.) But that’s not why the Connecticut Democrat, 59, a longtime crusader against showbiz excesses, is getting an even frostier reception in Hollywood these days. In April, following the Federal Trade Commission’s groundbreaking report last fall on the marketing of violent movies, music, and videogames to minors, Lieberman introduced a bill that would allow the FTC to fine entertainment companies for promoting adult fare in venues with a ”substantial” kid audience. Not surprisingly, the proposed legislation upsets Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti, who calls it ”a huge intrusion into the First Amendment.” EW sat down with the former vice presidential candidate to discuss the issues.

Q A lot of entertainment companies seem to feel threatened by your bill. Should they?
A If the legislation passed and the motion picture industry was doing its job — as it has in some degree — then it has nothing to fear…. Some individual studios — like Warner Bros., Disney, and Twentieth Century Fox — have not only adopted policies but carried some of them out, [making] some significant efforts not to advertise R-rated movies in places where they know kids are likely to be watching and reading. [According to the bill’s] safe-harbor provision, if any one of the industries — such as the videogame industry has done — adopts a code of marketing and self-enforcement, they’d be protected from FTC enforcement action.

Q Valenti claims that if this bill passed, it would encourage the studios to abandon their voluntary ratings system.
A This tone of outrage from Jack strikes me as particularly inappropriate, when all we’re asking them to do is not to market material that THEY rate as inappropriate for children to children. I mean, it’s not as if we’re telling them what they can put in a movie. We’re saying, ”Don’t be deceptive about your advertising.” But I don’t believe [he’d end ratings], because it would be an act of such bad citizenship and frankly a bad business policy.

Q Your bill has three cosponsors, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) Why are there no Republican cosponsors?
A I’ve asked myself that question. I’m puzzled by that…. I hope this picks up Republican support, because it’s so consistent with what a lot of my Republican colleagues are saying.

Q Does the bill need Republican support to survive?
A It sure does. Look, I’m not kidding myself. The entertainment industry is a strong lobby here. But this is important. The culture does have an impact on values and behavior…. I don’t want to ever get anywhere near censorship, because I believe in artistic freedom. But we’re not asking a heck of a whole lot.

Q How has your 13-year-old daughter, Hana, influenced your role on this issue?
A This is all her fault [laughs]. She got me into this when she was 5. I watched her watch some TV shows [like ”Married…With Children”] that I didn’t think were good for her.

Q How do you decide what she watches?
A We follow the TV ratings, and the poor child has to watch C-SPAN a lot. [With] movies, we give some deference to the MPAA system…. I try to read about a film, too, just to make sure it’s not that far over the line. She’s getting to be more mature; she can filter out things. I mean, I wouldn’t send her to a hyperviolent or hypersexual film, but there’s a lot of other stuff she can see and not be adversely affected by.