• U.S.


6 minute read
Richard Zoglin

FOR THE FIRST PRESIDENT TO GROW UP in the Age of Television, it was a gathering to relish. Thirty top TV executives–honchos from ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as major cable networks and Hollywood studios–stopped by the White House last Thursday for a meeting. To be sure, it was a command performance (Bill Clinton had proposed the summit in his State-of-the-Union address), and the subject matter was not one the invitees would have picked: sex and violence. But at least everyone was talking the same language. When Viacom’s Jonathan Dolgen warned that putting ratings on shows might make the networks shy away from strong programs like NYPD Blue in favor of more frivolous fare like Starsky and Hutch, the nation’s chief Baby Boomer reacted with mock offense: “I have a deep emotional attachment to Starsky and Hutch.”

The meeting stopped short of a session of Name That TV Theme. Even so, the rare assemblage of media moguls–among them Fox chief Rupert Murdoch, Atlanta cable baron Ted Turner and Walt Disney president Michael Ovitz–gave Clinton good reason to be pleased. They announced plans to develop a ratings system that would label shows high in sex, violence or other adult material. Their action was spurred by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which will require new TV sets to have the V chip, a device that enables parents to block out objectionable shows. Though network executives have long opposed government efforts to meddle in programming, claiming it would violate their First Amendment rights, they bowed to the growing clamor for giving parents more control over what their kids are watching.

Last week’s White House love-in was the high-profile result of weeks of tricky behind-the-scenes negotiations. A key meeting, TIME has learned, occurred two weeks ago at Al Gore’s vice-presidential residence. The private dinner was attended by top executives from the Big Three networks–ABC’s Robert Iger, NBC’s Robert Wright and CBS’s Peter Lund–along with Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, which administers the ratings for movies. The session was intended to get industry negotiations back on track after Murdoch had pre-empted the other networks by announcing that Fox would develop a ratings system on its own. Colleagues denounced Murdoch’s move as a cynical attempt to score political points. Indeed, playing the public-spirited maverick has become a Murdoch specialty of late: last week he announced that Fox would unilaterally offer free air time to presidential candidates during the upcoming campaign.

Over crab cakes in the Vice President’s elegant red-draped dining room, the network chiefs were urged, despite Murdoch’s move, to continue their efforts to agree on a common ratings system. They settled on the framework for the agreement unveiled last week. But some delicate managing by Valenti and Gore was still required. “It was a question of holding everyone together,” says a senior Administration official. “We were constantly on the phone with people, cajoling and reassuring.”

By the time of the White House summit, the industry coalition had come up with only the vaguest plan to present to Clinton. Some kind of ratings system, they promised, would be in operation by next January at the latest, and each network would be responsible for rating its own shows. But other thorny questions remain unresolved, such as exactly what the ratings categories will be and which shows will and won’t be rated (news? sports?). Still, President Clinton was quick to hail the agreement. “We’re handing the TV remote control back to America’s parents,” he said.

Clinton’s attempt to grab credit for the industry’s actions rankled some Republicans. TV sex and violence, after all, have been prominent pet peeves of G.O.P. leaders like former Vice President Dan Quayle and Senator Bob Dole. To re-establish his party’s claim to the family-values issue, House Speaker Newt Gingrich invited the entertainment executives to breakfast with Republican leaders before their White House meeting. Not much happened at the session, which was followed by another with Senate Democratic leaders.

The moguls then hopped aboard two chartered minibuses and rode to the White House. Clinton began by flattering his guests: “For an industry that gets more than its share of criticism, I think it is worth noting that you have all put aside your vigorous internal rivalries,” he said. Added Gore: “This is American business at its best.”

Once the press was ushered out, the discussion got a bit more freewheeling, though never unfriendly. “It was a good exchange of ideas,” says ABC’s Iger. “It wasn’t about one side cowering to another side’s lecture.” Valenti stressed that the government should stay out of any ratings effort, and Clinton agreed. Turner, long an outspoken critic of TV violence, noted that the industry was acting now only because the Telecommunications Act essentially forced it to: “Let’s be honest; this is not voluntary.” The most confrontational moment came during a discussion of children’s programming. Haim Saban, whose company produces Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, argued that airing more educational shows would not prevent kids from turning to their favorite entertainment shows. Gore responded by blasting Power Rangers and recounting how children imitate its karate-chop violence.

Though some executives complained that TV violence has become a “political football,” broadcasters have their own political reasons for being cooperative. The government is about to decide how to parcel out newly available spectrum space, which local stations will be able to use for digital broadcasting and extra channels. Many Congressmen and federal officials want to auction the space to the highest bidders; broadcasters argue that stations should get the spectrum for free–as they have in the past, in return for a promise to use it in “the public interest.” By taking action on TV violence, the networks hope to show that they are as public-interest-minded as ever.

“The idea that they’re agreeing on something at all is pretty amazing,” said Warner Bros. co-CEO Robert Daly after the meeting. “Has any other industry ever come into a room and discussed voluntarily what might be good for the American public? Has the gun industry? The cigarette industry?” President Clinton apparently was just as impressed. According to White House sources, plans for another industry summit are already in the works. This one would bring together CEOs of companies that exemplify “corporate responsibility.” If you can get the TV networks to shape up, it seems the sky’s the limit.

–Reported by James Carney/Washington and John Moody and William Tynan/New York

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com