The ban would be lifted if broadcast and cable TV companies add content descriptions to their sex and violence ratings.
In an unexpected move that strengthened the measure's prospects and gave pause to broadcasters, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), chairman of the committee, reversed his stance and cast a supporting vote, even though he conceded he has concerns about whether the measure will pass constitutional muster.
"What we're hopeful of is, the broadcasters will move towards a content-based ratings system, and then we would not have to address any of these questions," he said.
OPPOSED BY TV EXECS
Broadcast and cable executives said they recognized the panel's message. Nevertheless, they appeared ready-for now-to call Congress' bluff.
"We've opposed it in the past and I'm sure we'll continue to oppose it," said Jim May, exec VP of the National Association of Broadcasters.
William Pitts, VP-government affairs, ABC, questioned whether lawmakers would be satisfied with the addition of "S," "L" and "V" designations-standing for sex, foul language and violence-to the existing age-based ratings system.
Another broadcast industry source said the safe-harbor bill would have little effect because most violent programming is on cable TV, not broadcast.
"This takes a decided tilt toward government censorship," Mr. Pitts said. "If a bill like this were to be enacted into law, worthwhile programs such as 'Schindler's List' could not be shown to a broad-based audience."
A spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Association said the cable industry also opposes the measure, but had no further comment.
Sen. Ernest Hollings (D., S.C.), the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce Committee and sponsor of the bill, amended it to include congressional "findings" about age-based ratings and the impact of violent programming on children.
NO VOTE SCHEDULED YET
The safe-harbor bill has more hurdles to clear. For starters, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.) must decide whether to schedule it for a floor vote.
Also, the House has yet to act on a counterpart measure introduced by Rep. Ed Markey, (D., Mass.), ranking minority member on the House telecommunications subcommittee.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.), chairman of the subcommittee, will hold a hearing on the TV ratings controversy later this month in Peoria, Ill.
Ad groups, while not directly worried about "violence" restrictions, are concerned that content restrictions could pave the way for ad restrictions.
"If you can ban broad categories of programming, then advertising, which is considered to have less protection, is seriously at risk," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertising. "We believe the Hollings bill is unconstitutional. It would make the FCC the national drama critic and censor for broadcast television."