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Hollywood Claims It Doesn't Target Violence To Kids; The Clinton Administration Says Otherwise
Watching the maneuvers of both sides in the post-Littleton debate over violence in the media, I can't help but feel we've seen this before. Let's call it the "welfare of the children" gambit. It's been a Clinton administration specialty.
Take any product that is highly popular but has undeniable anti-social consequences: tobacco, guns, pornography, drugs, alcohol and, now, media violence. Any attempt to prohibit such products would not only run into constitutional roadblocks, but also confront a broad consensus that believes adults have a right to download porn from the Internet or get off on blowing away a videogame opponent. But shift the focus to children and the game changes. Hollywood is about to learn what the tobacco and alcohol industries already know: No one can oppose the welfare of the children.
Those who want to regulate children's access to media violence cite numerous yet unspecified studies that scientifically "prove" a link between exposure to violent images and violent behavior. Yet even without the reassurance of numbers, common sense tells us that a steady diet of explosions, decapitations and first-person blow-'em-ups is likely to have some effect on its audience - though what that effect is and how it filters into behavior, no one knows.
That hasn't stopped Congress from rushing in with a raft of scattershot proposals, the legislative equivalent of spraying the problem with an AK-47. Congress has proposed everything from banning violent TV programming from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. to making the sale of R-rated movie tickets to minors a federal crime.
Yet for the entertainment industry, none of these proposed regulations - some of which would never pass constitutional muster - is likely to be as potent as the FTC hearings that Clinton wants. The agency assures Hollywood its study is not an investigation; it just wants to know whether they market violent fare to children.
But the threat of the feds combing through marketing execs' e-mail is enough to put the fear of God into the entertainment business.
Without being privy to the e-mail of Hollywood moguls, I'm fairly certain the FTC panel won't have a problem uncovering a trove of Joe Camels in the marketing of violent movies and videogames. I also predict that Hollywood's protestations that it doesn't "target" violent entertainment at children, however technically true, will reek of bad faith.
A TV network builds its fortunes on its appeal to a demo of "future adults." Multiple cable channels compete for children's eyeballs. Movies graduate from hits to blockbusters when they attract teens who see the film again and again. These days, even toddlers are a target demo.
Marketers covet young customers for the same reason child advocates want to protect them: the belief that the young are vulnerable to marketing in a way that adult consumers are not.
For marketers, children do indeed represent, in Bill Clinton's unmemorable words, "our future and our most precious resource."
Still, the imminent prospect of a public agency scrutinizing their marketing practices has left its mark on the entertainment media. Two weeks ago, movie theater owners agreed to begin carding young people to keep them out of R-rated films without the required parent.
The video rental industry is making conciliatory noises about taking measures to keep such tapes out of youthful hands as well. Under the pressure of public outrage, which the FTC hearings are designed to arouse, more "voluntary" self-regulation by the entertainment industry is likely to follow.
Television largely escaped the post-Columbine wrath because it "volunteered" for the V-chip rating system two years ago. The movie, music and videogame businesses will likely arrive at solutions that like the V-chip, combine consumer information, parental discretion and actionable technology.
The question is where will it stop? I can see the future of childhood - and it's a weird place where the young have unprecedented access to culture yet are subject to unprecedented barriers to sampling it.
We are weaving a network of computer chips, filtering softwares, I.D. cards and permission slips that's creating a sort of cultural Star Wars defense system designed to diffuse mind-polluting media bombs before they explode in the minds of the young.
It's an arms race for the 21st century, pitting the desirability of young consumers against the desire to protect them. It's not clear which side will triumph.