PRESIDENT CLINTON'S announcement that a federal agency will look into the marketing of movies, music and video games -- primarily to find out whether stuff you wouldn't want your kids to see is being aimed right at them -- was met with a prompt and predictable response from the industry. "We're a fat, inviting target," said one of its leaders, Motion Picture Association President Jack Valenti. "Politicians know that when you trash the movie industry -- it's `soiling the culture' -- your numbers go up. They're looking for something to fix it quickly."
There's some truth to the complaint. The poll-driven nature of this administration is no secret, nor is its propensity for commissions, investigations and town meetings that are supposedly meant to deal with some of the country's more difficult problems but that end up doing little more than obfuscating the issue until the next election is over. Moreover, the idea of the Federal Trade Commission's delving into the conduct of a major business and then possibly coming up with an array of detailed rules and regulations governing the ways in which we're allowed to amuse ourselves isn't an appealing one.
But the president says that's not the goal of this rather limited (18-month, $1 million) study, which the independent FTC is to carry out with help from the Justice Department. Rather, he says, it is meant to elicit information on whether the makers of certain video games, recordings and movies are directing them toward kids, thereby undermining their own ratings advisories on violent and sexual content.
"Last year, with a family friend, I went to a movie store to rent some movies and saw this magazine about new video games," said Arthur Salway, a Seattle fourth-grader enlisted by the White House for its announcement this week. "I wanted to buy it because the first few pages had fun games, airplanes and car-racing games. When I got home and flipped through the pages, I came across an ad that said, `More fun than shooting your neighbor's cat.' Also, the ad said: `Bang, meow! Bang, meow!' "
Examples of this sort are, of course, selected for their dramatic value, but the truth is that most parents have at least gotten a glimpse of far more grisly images of shootings, stabbings, executions and other mayhem on a screen with some 9-year-old hunched over it in tense engagement. If the government's limited look at the entertainment business turns up hard evidence on just whom this sort of thing is being marketed to (and that's all that ought to come of it: information), then it could be a useful exercise.