Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Why Senator Joseph Lieberman's MPAA crusade is counter-productive.

They say that no good deed goes unpunished. Well, according to certain members of Congress, the people who contribute the most should be punished, while the people who do nothing should not. Apparently, we can add to the list those who willingly and voluntarily give information regarding the content of their products to parents who are trying to find appropriate entertainment for their children. Introduced about one month ago, a new bill by Joseph Lieberman would financially penalize movie studios that allegedly market material deemed recommended for adults to kids. At a cost of $11,000 per day to the studios, the new bill is the latest attempt by Mr. Lieberman to prove that he really does know what is best for all of us. Specifically, it targets the MPAA ratings system (as well as the voluntary ratings system of the music industry and the video-game industry), which he claims often markets films rated “R” to an audience under the age of seventeen. In the general sense, he is correct in this finding, but he is missing the point.

The MPAA ratings system, implemented in 1968, is and always has been voluntary. It is not law, nor is it enforced on a greater level than a theater-by-theater basis. It is not a law and thus should not be held up as one, with the same penalties that come with violating laws. The system is primarily a tool for parents to decide what movies should or should not be viewed by their children. Under that banner, it is a most effective system. Sure, it has its problems (big studios get lighter treatment than the independents, sex is considered far worse than violence, etc), but as an informational system, it accomplishes its mission: to let a parent know more or less what to expect from a movie.

According to Lieberman, to market a product rated “R” to a teenager a false and deceptive business practice. The problem is, an “R” rated film, under the system, is not considered inappropriate for children. The wording specifically states: “No one under seventeen permitted without a parent or guardian.” Never has anyone in the business implied that all R-rated films are inappropriate for children. And considering that the bill sets no definitive standards for what “marketing to the young” would imply, the legislation would operate under a purely subjective banner of what is or is not an appropriate marketing strategy for a film with adult subject manner (“Better not make that explosion in the trailer too exciting! Better not use that music from that popular mainstream artist! Better not advertise during a time when kids MIGHT be watching!”). Aside from the subjective nature of the bill, this would-be law actually punishes the people who willingly provide ratings and information and holds them to a higher standard than companies that do not.

“By essentially punishing those who adopt voluntary guidelines,” Cary Sherman, general counsel of the Recording Industry Association of America, stated, “the legislation would have the unintentional result of discouraging participation in the successful parental advisory program.” Furthermore, if movie companies are prevented from freely advertising R-rated films and thus lose money as a result (which has already started to happen), they will simply find ways to allow more and more “objectionable” material into PG-13 rated films to attempt to by-pass the law. If Lieberman really wishes to prevent the flow of violence and sex into our children’s heads, he should get behind a new rating, an “A”, that would be given to purely adult films (but not pornography). And, to avoid the NC-17 debacle (which was supposed to be for true adult films but soon became as stigmatized as the X it replaced), Lieberman should encourage studios to release films, major theaters to carry films, and major media outlets to accept advertising for films under this new rating. If filmmakers are not afraid to make truly adult films, then studios will not force them to pigeon-hole adult content in greater quantities into their mainstream product in order to scrape by with that precious R or PG-13.

Preventing a company from advertising their art prevents that company from making such art, which constitutes de-facto government censorship. Shooting the messengers never solved anything. If the mighty Lieberman really wants to clean up Hollywood, he should encourage Hollywood to make films that are for adults, by adults, rather than forcing the studios to force-feed adult content into general entertainments.

Scott Mendelson

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