Washington to Hollywood: Oh, Behave

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STEVE AZZARA/CORBIS SYGMA

Eminem at the MTV Video Music Awards

Eminem, the white rapper who also operates under the name Slim Shady, is this year's chief specimen of music-industry magic. His new album, the one in which he rhapsodizes about raping his mother, stabbing gays and so forth, has been in the Top 10 since May, with sales in the U.S. of more than 5 million and climbing. Sample line: "Slim Shady does not give a f___ what you think. If you don't like it, you can suck his f___ing c___." Got that, folks?

Most adults are embarrassed to admit anymore that they might find a movie or a song too much to stomach. They are not so complacent about their kids. The rough edges of pop culture scrape harder these days, and its most extravagant enchantments are promoted to ever younger kids. When your 10-year-old comes home singing "Bitch I'ma kill you" — Eminem again, in a Valentine to his mother — you don't care if you once adored Richard Pryor and William Burroughs. You turn into one of those angry swing voters.

This, naturally, is where the Federal Trade Commission comes in. Last week the FTC released a report on how movie studios, music companies and video-game makers push violent products on children. Landing as it did in the middle of the campaign season, the report caught the attention of Washington at the highest levels of presidential ambition. Al Gore gave the entertainment companies six months to shape up their marketing practices or face unspecified retaliation from Washington. The Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by John McCain, held a hearing to examine the FTC conclusions. Senate colleague Joe Lieberman showed up to express his and Gore's distress. Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, arrived to cite Eminem as proof that the problem is not just how the entertainment companies sell. "There is a problem with the products," she noted.

The report was requested by Bill Clinton more than a year ago, in the aftermath of the Columbine school massacre, when raw pop culture was blamed for furnishing some of the mental climate in which the killers let their grievances fester. Sidestepping the interminable question of what role song lyrics and movies play in real violence, Clinton asked the FTC just to determine whether the movies, pop music and video games that manufacturers themselves label as questionable for kids were being marketed to kids anyway. The report concluded that "the answers are plainly, yes."

At the commission's request, internal marketing documents and other evidence were provided by more than 60 companies, including Disney, Fox and Sony as well as Warner Bros. Films and Warner Music Group, both owned by Time Warner. After sifting through those, the FTC decided that the three industries often push violent product in places where young people are a large part of the audience. Though the report did not cite films or studios by name, it did find that R-rated films were advertised in high school newspapers, offered to teens through free preview screenings and advertised on programs watched heavily by children, such as "Xena: Warrior Princess," "South Park" and professional wrestling. (Professional wrestling? It would be fair to say the report passed up the chance to observe that some of this "children's" programming is skeevier than anything in R-rated movies.) At the Senate hearings, McCain raised the example of Sony Pictures attempting to place ads on Nickelodeon, a network specifically created for kids, for the skull-blasting Bruce Willis film "The Fifth Element," which was rated PG-13. Nickelodeon refused the ads.

The FTC also decided that entertainment companies don't just accidentally rein in teens and children; they often target them deliberately in their marketing strategies. The report says an unnamed studio distributed flyers for an R-rated film to youth groups like the Camp Fire Boys and Girls. Video-game makers routinely identified kids under 17 as a big catch in media strategies for games rated M, for "mature" buyers. Dale Pollock, dean of the film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, produced the 1996 film "Set It Off." It was violent, raw and rated R, but Pollock says its distributor, New Line, marketed it to young audiences. "People are naive to think marketers are scrupulous in trying to avoid exposing R-rated films to [kids]," he says. "The exact opposite is true." New Line, a subsidiary of Time Warner, had no comment.

Advertising adult product to teenagers would make no sense if they couldn't buy it. But the labeling systems for music and video games have no teeth. Some large retailers refuse to sell kids M-rated video games or CDs that carry parental-advisory stickers, but most will. Theater owners are not exactly vigilant about enforcing the film-ratings code — something known to any 14-year-old who ever went to the box office at a multiplex, bought a ticket for a PG film, then strolled into a theater playing a film rated R.

The accused industries complain that the magazines and TV shows they advertise with, the ones that reach some kids, are often the same ones they have to use to reach adults. But on the day after the report was released, Disney announced a package of new policies, including a promise that it would provide in its advertising explanations of why any of its films received PG-13, R or NC-17 ratings — for instance, for violence, sex, profanity or drug use — and that its ABC-TV network would no longer accept ads for R-rated movies during prime time before 9 p.m. Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, admitted to the committee that the FTC report identified some practices — like focus groups for 10-year-olds — that should end. But he insists that the ratings system adopted by the movie industry in 1968 is working as intended. "Eighty-one percent of parents are satisfied with the system," he told TIME, citing an FTC survey. "We must be doing something right."

One day after the FTC issued its report, South Carolina attorney general Charlie Condon called it a "smoking gun" that would allow him and other state attorneys general to sue the entertainment companies in the same way they successfully sued the tobacco industry. "They're going after these kids full bore," he says. "It's like an aspirin company marketing adult aspirin to children in violation of their own standards." But a class action of the kind that brought down the cigarette makers would be a hard case. While the connection between smoking and cancer is backed by solid medical evidence, it would not be so easy to prove in court a connection between Marilyn Manson — last year's Eminem — and social problems like increased violence. And unlike tobacco, those movies, CDs and video games are protected by the First Amendment, which limits the steps that government can take against them. All the same, the First Amendment does not guarantee minors the right to purchase the same material that adults can. The FTC report suggested that more retailers should not let kids buy stickered CDs and video games, just as teens are barred from NC-17 films. This would allow record labels and video-game makers to release whatever they please, and adults to buy it and even pass it on to their kids if they thought that was O.K. But that's a prospect that makes entertainment executives nervous, since the market for the raunchiest and most belligerent pop culture is made up largely of teenage boys. Deprived of that market, Eminem would have to make the case for himself as an artist among adults, where — who knows? — maybe he could make it. But it would be harder for him to move 5 million units.

John McCain was furious that no studio heads showed up to testify before his committee. They all pleaded scheduling conflicts. So he set a second hearing for next week that the execs are expected to fit into their calendars. Nobody is suggesting a government body to meddle in popular culture. The real aim here is to intimidate the entertainment companies into reining in themselves, as they did with the bumptious movie-industry Hays office of the 1930s and '40s and the Comics Magazine Association of America, an industry group formed in 1954 after Senate hearings into bloody and smutty comic books. It gave its seal of approval only to comic books that went easy on the cleavage and eye gouging. Most retailers would not sell comics that did not earn the association's seal. The system broke down in the 1970s, but for two decades it kept Batman from drinking blood and Wonder Woman dressed. What the politicians would prefer again is that the entertainment companies hold the line themselves. Of course, in a world where "WWF SmackDown!" qualifies as children's TV, nobody really knows where that line is supposed to be.

— Reported by Jess Cagle/Los Angeles, Mitch Frank/New York and Mark Thompson/Washington.