The Media Violence Labeling Act of 2000 (S.2497), a recent Senate proposal, could have a far-reaching impact on consumers and retailers if enacted.
Introduced last month by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the bill states that it intends "to provide for the development, use, and enforcement of an easily recognizable system in plain English for labeling violent content in audio and visual media products and services, and for other purposes."
"There is a consensus in the scientific community that exposure to violent images through the media is harmful to kids," said McCain. "This is common sense to the rest of us. The producers of these products have a moral obligation to inform consumers of violent content. What this legislation does is impose a legal requirement to do so."
Lawmakers hope to develop the system by amending the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act to incorporate the categories this bill defines. If enacted, the bill would apply to interactive video games and services, video programs, motion picture and sound recording products. Television programming, including any motion picture broadcast on television, is not included. Television is excluded because of conflicts with the existing V-chip technology that allows consumers to block reception of programs. Internet content isn't mentioned either.
The act gives manufacturers and producers 180 days to develop and submit to the Federal Trade Commission a joint proposal for the system. The FTC would then review and modify this as necessary, or develop its own if one isn't submitted. Regulations would be enforced not later than one year after enactment.
Reactions from concerned groups have been swift and largely negative.
"Anybody involved in the sale or rental of any products in the bill would be against it," said Sean Bersell, vice president of government affairs and member communications, Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA), Encino, Calif. "It's unconstitutional, unnecessary, and burdensome. The VSDA has written to all members of the Senate in opposition to the bill."
Jack Valenti, president, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Encino, Calif., has also voiced his opposition to the plan, which he termed "dangerous."
"The impact could be disastrous for consumers, retailers, and manufacturers," said Douglas Lowenstein, president, International Digital Software Association, Washington, D.C. "Any time the government gets involved in content regulation, either directly or indirectly, the effect is chilling to First Amendment rights. It's something we need to be very wary of."
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Washington, D.C., is on record as "battling long and hard in the House and Senate against such restrictive initiatives as one-size-fits-all labeling to apply to every sector of the entertainment industry, music, films, video games, and television."
Many supermarkets agree. "How can you really regulate what's good for everybody?" asked Craig Hill, director of video, Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark. "Whose opinion are we going to listen to?"
"Government intervention in moral issues is a bad idea," said Greg Rediske, president, Video Management Company, Tacoma, Wash. "They're taking a complex issue and simplifying it ineffectively, like blaming some Marilyn Manson song for our problems. The cause-and-effect relationship is screwy."
Distribution, however, isn't getting formally involved. "We won't take a position on this bill," said Bill Burton, executive director, National Association of Video Distributors (NAVD), Owensboro, Ky. "We didn't take a position on the previous one," he continued, referring to this bill's predecessor, the Media Violence Labeling Act of 1999.
That bill, introduced by McCain and others last June, is remarkably similar to this one. The bill has provoked a number of concerns, many involving the interaction of its new labeling system with the three major systems in current use.
The oldest of these, the movie ratings established by the MPAA's Code and Rating Administration in 1968, have changed little since the original "G," "M," "R," and "X." The RIAA's Parental Advisory Label, identifying music with explicit lyrics, has changed only in design since its introduction in 1985. Meanwhile video and computer games use the most recent and most elaborate system, the IDSA-created Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) presented to Congress in 1994.
"The fact that this bill's labeling pertains only to violence means that consumers will have less information, not more," said Lowenstein. "The existing ratings systems are far broader. The ESRB is certainly the solution for our industry."
Indeed, the ESRB's ratings are broadly inclusive, with six main categories from "Early Childhood" to "Adults Only." These are further detailed by "content descriptors" under subheads like "violence" and "language."
In contrast, the RIAA uses only one notice. "We believe that not all music is right for all ages and our Parental Advisory Label was created for just that reason," said RIAA president and chief executive officer Hillary Rosen recently.
"The National Association of Recording Manufacturers has long supported the industry's practice of affixing parental advisory notices to recordings with explicit lyrics," reads a statement from NARM, Marlton, N.J. "Focus groups of parents have confirmed that they prefer this voluntary information system over one of censorship and government regulation."
"Consumers are familiar with the ratings systems already in place," said VSDA president Bo Andersen in a letter to senators. "MPAA's 32-year-old rating system for movies includes comfortable household terms like 'G,' 'PG,' and 'PG-13...' Requiring two separate ratings on every movie and video game would cause tremendous confusion among consumers." Andersen also noted that "video retailers would have to restock or relabel every piece of inventory -- an extremely expensive and burdensome requirement."
Another principal concern is the issue of new penalties. "The bill isn't designed to be punitive," said VSDA's Bersell, but it does provide civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day for violations of two provisions. The first directs all manufacturers and producers to use the new label. The second stipulates that "a person may not sell in commerce any audio or visual media product or service to an individual whose age in years is less than the age specified as the minimum age in years for a purchaser and consumer of the product or service..."
Retailers see this as an intrusion. "We don't promote violence, of course," said Hill of Harps. "We do look at game ratings when buying, and we pass on those with extreme violence. But regulations like these wind up taking management's time to manage employees instead of the business. Maybe violent PlayStation games are the root of all evil, but I don't think so."
"The situation now is almost laughably extreme without further restrictions," said one industry analyst. "There are anime advisories affirming that cartoon characters are of legal age. Do they need cartoon birth certificates on file?"
Retailers and trade groups generally agree that the best course to forestall further legislation is to adhere to existing systems.
"Video stores and grocery stores need to enforce the ratings already in place," said Rediske, "to show that we're acting responsibly."
"Voluntary programs, such as VSDA's 'Pledge to Parents,' are the best way to help parents exercise that control," said Andersen. "The centerpiece of Pledge to Parents, established by VSDA in 1991, is a commitment by participating retailers: (1) Not to rent or sell videotapes or video games designated as "restricted" to persons under age 17 without parental consent. (2) Not to rent or sell videotapes rated NC-17 by MPAA or video games rated "Adults Only" by ESRB to persons aged 17 or under."
While remaining the subject of debate, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.