The Jack-and-Charlie Show played a matinee at the Capitol yesterday, and those two dependable old troupers did not disappoint.
Jack Valenti, rising bright and early after a strenuous private performance at the home of Ann and Art Buchwald, regaled a packed hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building with tales of his teen-aged son and the family video cassette recorder. "My son hasn't seen a commercial in 18 months," the head of the Motion Picture Association of America noted gravely.
"Teen-agers are very creative in the ways that they rebel against their parents," retorted Charles D. Ferris, former counsel to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, currently employed by the Sony Corp. and its Home Recording Rights Coalition. "And I can think of no more creative way for your son to rebel against you, Jack, than to zap out the commercials on his VCR."
The host was Fred Richmond (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, who introduced Ferris as a man "well known to members of Congress," and congratulated Valenti, several decades after the fact, for having won the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was billed as a debate over the idea of a royalty fee on VCRs and blank tapes, intended to compensate the creators of televised material for home videotaping. Yesterday's face-off had been announced weeks ago, but it took on added drama because it came in the aftermath of two historic developments: first, the Supreme Court's announcement that it will consider the copyright implications of videotaping (and a California appellate court ruling that VCR makers and owners are copyright infringers by definition) during the coming session; and second, the publication of Valenti's new book, "Speak Up With Confidence: How to Prepare, Learn and Deliver Effective Speeches."
Asked, as he plunged into the fray, how it felt to match tongues with the author of a textbook on tongue-matching, Ferris smiled and replied, "I've never heard a speech of Jack's I didn't like."
He has heard at least seven of them in recent months, for that is how many times Ferris and Valenti have appeared on common podia in what looms to be 1982's answer (in duration if not quality) to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So accustomed have they become to each other's faces, in fact, that yesterday Ferris was able to warn that his adversary would reach into his pocket and produce a handy remote-control gizmo for removing commercials in the videotaping process--and Valenti went right ahead and did just that.
The commercial-watching habits of VCR owners have become a central issue in the controversy, with Valenti's side insisting that sponsors will not pay full value for an audience that can skip ads so easily, and Ferris' countering that tapers are no more prone to do this than anyone else. The prices networks pay for the right to use copyrighted programs already reflect VCR use, according to Ferris, so a royalty would be an attempt to collect twice for the same thing.
At first, Valenti appeared tired after Monday night's book-publication party, calling to mind one of the beginning maxims of his book--that "you cannot take a pill at bedtime and wake up the next day a brilliant orator." But as soon as the debate got under way, he gave a typically vibrant performance, comparing Ferris' version of events to "Russian revisionist history," capsulizing the basic issue as "the American people versus six Japanese manufacturers," and insisting that members of Congress and their aides "have a solemn oath" to defend the principle "that that which belongs to others cannot be taken from them without their permission."
Ferris, in turn, called the VCR "the best friend Hollywood ever had" and appealed to Congress, in a time of austerity, not to enact a new "tax" for the benefit of a "profitable industry." He considers it a tax rather than a royalty, he said, because "it quacks like a tax and it waddles like a tax."
He wound up with an elaborate anecdote about the time when, as a mere boy, he bought a supply of bologna at the neighborhood grocery store, only to have the grocer's son--a notorious bully--demand additional payment when he saw Ferris eating a bologna sandwich. "So what I would say today," Ferris concluded, "is, 'Jack, how many times do we have to pay for your bologna?' "