Why fix the ratings on movies, television, music and computer games? They're not broken, insisted entertainment industry leaders yesterday in response to President Clinton's call for a single, voluntary system to replace the current codes.
Hollywood's silver-haired spokesman, Jack Valenti, was first to fire at the White House for being ill-informed and advocating something "impossible" to carry out.
"I promise you--it can't work. It won't work," said Valenti, who heads the Motion Picture Association of America, which created the movie rating system. "The reason is quite simple: We rated 700 movies last year. There are 2,000 hours a day of television--the equivalent of 1,000 motion pictures every day. There's 1,000 video games every year, 7,000 albums and other materials. To have one panel that's going to apply subjective judgments to this is simply an impossible achievement."
In his State of the Union speech on Thursday night, Clinton said the current systems are "too numerous, diverse and confusing to be really useful to parents," and championed a suggestion by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to come up with a single system to replace it.
But other entertainment industry representatives agreed with Valenti. "A move to one rating system for mediums whose content is distinctly different will only create confusion, not clarity," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association.
"The Clinton administration should spend its resources ensuring that every American, especially parents, know more about the entertainment ratings systems already in place," he continued. "Empowering parents with the knowledge to make choices that are in the best interest of their families is the most constructive way to address this issue."
Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said it was the wrong time to change the ratings system, now that televisions are finally entering the marketplace with the V-chip, a parental monitoring device.
"It would be unfortunate for parents and families to be asked to adapt to a new system of program guidelines. We worked for two years with the White House, Congress and children's advocacy groups to develop our pro-family rating system," he said. As of this year, every television set sold in the United States with a screen larger than 13 inches has a V-chip.
An official at the Washington office of the Recording Industry of America Association, the music industry lobby, said the group had no comment.
Valenti accused the White House of criticizing the current system without researching whether it works, and without having an alternative in mind. He said the first he'd heard of Clinton's proposal was in a courtesy phone call from the White House at 5 p.m. on the evening of the president's speech.
"No one has been in touch with us," he said. "Where does he get his information that it's confusing? We have a Web site, a fax, an address. A PSA (public service announcement) that says, 'Tell us what you want.' " He added, "If you're going to say something isn't working, you ought to present some evidence other than your own personal opinion as to why it isn't working."
But Valenti himself has come under fire for refusing to explore changes in the 30-year-old movie rating system that critics charge is vague, secretive and often amounts to censorship. And the young television ratings system, adopted in January 1997, is often skewered as irrelevant. The Washington Post, among many other newspapers, does not publish them in its daily television chart.
A spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton said neither the president nor the first lady is an expert in the ratings issue, and said they want to leave it in the hands of the respective industries.
"They are aware there are people who feel it would be difficult to do that," said Lissa Muscatine in Hillary Clinton's office. "Mrs. Clinton's point is that parents are having a hard time with the ratings system as it currently exists. We should find a way to make it easier. In her view the people in the industry should figure this out without interference from the federal government."
She said Valenti had met with Clinton's domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed in the past six months to explore this idea, though Valenti said otherwise.
The Interactive Digital Software Association, which represents Disney Interactive, Nintendo of America, Sega of American Dreamcast Inc. and the other creators of video and computer games, has its own ratings board. The manufacturers stamp each of its computer games with a simple lettered guide that shows whether the content is suitable for a young user or adults only.
The television ratings--in which producers rate their own programs--has been used by 54 percent of parents who responded to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. "Every poll shows that the parental guidelines are being used. We're willing to discuss proposals that help empower parents and viewers, but why turn back the clock on a system that is working?" said the NAB's Fritts.