Mr. Studio Head Goes to Washington

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Mel Harris of Sony testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee

The Hollywood shuffle has moved to Capitol Hill. Wednesday, executives from the nation's major film companies gathered before the Senate Commerce Committee braced for another round of attacks from angry lawmakers. The motion picture studios are charged with marketing R-rated movies to underage viewers — accusations buoyed by previously confidential test audience studies, outlined in Wednesday's New York Times, in which studio researchers habitually screen violent films to children as young as 10. Now, studio execs claim the industry is prepared to alter its marketing plans.

The proposed changes aren't exactly earth- shattering. Eight of the major studios, including Dreamworks SKG, Paramount, Sony and Twentieth Century Fox, signed an agreement to ask movie theaters not to show trailers for R-rated movies before G-rated films, and to exclude underage audience members from test screenings of R-rated pictures. And the Fox television network will no longer show ads for R-rated movies during "family" programs.

Wednesday morning, during their attempt to peddle their newly retrieved consciences to the Senate committee, more than a few film execs appeared shaken by their roles as nationally reviled moral reprobates, and lawmakers were treated to statements in desperate need of a good script doctor. "The enhancements that we propose today offer substantial potential for improvement," insisted Rob Friedman, vice chair of Paramount Pictures, who has apparently mastered the art of political double-speak. And while no one really understood what Friedman was saying, he seemed to mean well.

Unfortunately for Friedman, good intentions aren't going to turn back the industry's fiercest critics, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, whose crusade against violent entertainment content is reaching a highly scrutinized crescendo. "They've taken some positive steps. But it's not enough," he told "The Early Show" Wednesday. Sen. John McCain, who heads the Commerce Committee, appeared equally unimpressed by the entertainment execs' latest efforts.

As in all political battles, compromise will prove key on Capitol Hill this week. Sure, Hollywood can protest loudly, and with good reason: They're being used (against their will) as a sacrificial lamb to the election season. And the Senate can likewise argue the execs have brought this scourge of attention upon themselves by ignoring previous pleas for self-regulation. But in the end, each side will have to give a little, patch up the other side's ego and go back to business. There isn't much chance the entertainment industry will make substantial changes — just as the Senate is unlikely to metamorphose into a pack of teen-scream-flick fans.