Scaling Back TV Violence

Television shows with graphic bloodshed or gratuitous violence could be banned from daylight viewing under a measure that passed the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday.

The bill, which limits such programming when children are likely to be watching, comes a week after federal regulators accused the entertainment industry of marketing violent, adult-rated products to young people.

Despite the industry's protests, violence is made accessible to children because it makes money, said Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., one of the sponsors of the bill. He has been pushing for a "safe harbor" of children's TV viewing time for years.

"The industry, as in the past, continues today to know, understand and prosper under the auspices of 'violence pays.' They know it and we know it," Hollings said.

Under the bill approved Wednesday, "violent" television shows could only be shown when children do not make up a significant portion of the audience or when the shows bear ratings that would allow parents to electronically block them.

Safe harbor hours normally run between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., although the bill gives the Federal Communications Commission power to set the exact hours. The agency also would determine the definition of "violent programming."

The restrictions would only kick in, however, if an FCC study finds the v-chip system -- which enables parents to block out programs rated for violence, sex and crude language -- is not effective in protecting children from explicit TV content.

The v-chip technology, required by law in all new TV sets 13 inches and larger, works with encoded ratings displayed on shows to flag violent or sexual material. Broadcast and cable networks voluntarily choose to rate their programs.

Hollings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, doesn't think the system works and noted that Canada and other countries have already adopted the idea of blocking violent programming during hours when children are likely to be watching.

"It's a tried and true approach," he said.

A Federal Trade Commission report last week decried the "pervasive and aggressive marketing" of adult material to children. The FCC already has planned October hearings to examine the amount of sex and violence on television networks.

Despite the scrutiny on violence in the media, some lawmakers still expressed concern that such a measure would run afoul of the First Amendment.

"I just don't think we should start down the road of regulating content," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who along with Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga. voted against the bill. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the committee, only voted "present" on the bill.

Hollings said programmers could still make whatever they want, they just couldn't show it whenever they want.

Brownback wanted to change Hollings' bill to allow the entertainment industry -- including record companies, Internet content providers, move studios, video game makers as well as television programmers -- to develop a set of voluntary programming guidelines, but it was defeated on a procedural motion.

"Self-regulation by the entertainment industry is especially important considering the First Amendment protections that prohibit government regulation of content in most instances," FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said at a later hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Supreme Court in May struck down a "safe harbor" law forcing many cable operators to restrict showing sexually oriented material to between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. However, the ruling only applies to cable systems, not the broadcast medium, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in the decision.

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