TV VIOLENCE IS HIT AGAIN ON HILL

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WASHINGTON-TV advertisers and programmers may be taking the heat for Hollywood-made violence and its purported real-life imitators.

That's one theory behind the sudden resurgence of lawmakers' interest in violent TV programs, their networks and sponsors. Politics is another, with some observers quick to note that Election Day is only eight weeks away, and no candidate ever lost votes by campaigning against gratuitous violence on the public airwaves.

But whatever the impetus, there's enough trouble brewing that the advertising and TV industries are mapping strategy to counter two bills that would effectively sort TV programs and sponsors into "good" and "bad" categories, depending on the violence level.

Already, the American Association of Advertising Agencies has asked that public hearings be put off until next year on a proposal by Sen. Bob Graham (D., Fla.) to prohibit the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak, Army and other federal agencies from advertising on programs identified as violent by the National Telecommunications Information Administration.

Federal agencies spend about $153 million annually on advertising, and if the Army is any example, there's already an aversion to violent shows. The Army's contract with Young & Rubicam, New York, stipulates that ads not air in violent programs.

Meanwhile, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.) is pressing for a law that would develop, at taxpayer expense, lists of violent shows and their sponsors. His bill would authorize public grants to non-profit groups via the NTIA to evaluate programming based on violent content, and furnish the results to the NTIA for quarterly publication.

Exactly why TV violence has exploded on the scene now isn't clear, though one industry executive pointed to the uproar over Oliver Stone's violent film, "Natural Born Killers," and last week's arrest of two men tied to a multistate killing spree.

"It's all political," the executive said. "It's au courant to talk about TV violence-to ask if the two men on that rampage saw `Natural Born Killers' and then to make an easy transition to TV violence."

Broadcasters and cable networks seemingly had defused the violence controversy earlier this year by agreeing, under pressure from Sen. Paul Simon (D., Ill.), to voluntary rating of programs and a long-term study.

Industry groups realize the issue's sensitivity. Neither the Four A's, the Association of National Advertisers nor the National Association of Broadcasters would bad-mouth the proposals, though all likely would oppose them.

Four A's Exec VP Hal Shoup said the bill to restrict advertising by federal agencies would, in effect, create a federal "censorship board."

Martin Franks, senior VP-Washington at CBS Inc., discounted chances the bills would pass this year but predicted they would be around for a while.

"It's an issue that won't lose its political attractiveness," he said. "Who is for TV violence in America? It's a no-lose issue for 30-second campaign ads."

"I think there is a wider recognition today in the advertiser community that this is a very slippery slope, even for those who'd never be found in a controversial program," Mr. Franks said. "But if someone can consider an ABC sitcom or the CBS news from Rwanda as violent, then I'm not sure that any advertiser is safe from the threat of being blackballed."

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