Media bind: Execs question the value of 35% standard

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Media executives take the Federal Trade Commission report seriously, but many question whether reducing kids' exposure to ads for violent movies and games is achievable.

In particular, executives say the report's 35% standard -- barring ads for violent entertainment when 35% or more of the audience is under the age of 17 -- would place major restrictions on marketing without solving the problem.

"All it does is give it a formula, but it doesn't eliminate exposure," said John Jacobs, exec VP-marketing of Destination Films.

"Even if they passed a law, do they really think that the teens aren't going to know about [an R-rated] movie?" asked Roger Schaffner, president of Palisades Media Group, Santa Monica, Calif., which buys media for Miramax Films and Dimension Films, among other studios. "They'll find out about it."

The strongest reactions among magazine publishers came from entertainment and gaming titles.

"There's no nefarious scheme to market games to underage kids on our part, certainly," said Lee Uniacke, group publisher for Ziff Davis' Games Group. The group publishes three titles -- Electronic Gaming Monthly, Expert Gamers and the Unofficial PlayStation Magazine -- cited in the report for running ads for M-rated (or mature) games, which are intended for over-17 consumers.

"It's a little bit disingenuous," Mr. Uniacke said. "We write about mature games, and nobody says we shouldn't."

The FTC estimates that more than half of those magazines' readership is under 18.

Can record companies be forced "to renounce the new Limp Bizkit album? I don't see it happening," said Mitch Herskowitz, publisher of Hit Parader. Mr. Herskowitz sensed political opportunism in the timing of the FTC report. "Today's date is Sept. 13, and the elections are in early November. Enough said."

Much of the FTC attack on Hollywood targets young-skewing TV networks such as the WB and MTV Networks, where movie marketers typically advertise R-rated movies.

Media executives were quick to note self-regulatory efforts. Walt Disney Co., for instance, reaffirmed the policy at its ABC network not to accept R-rated movie commercials before 9 p.m. in any market.

MTV Networks is tightening its efforts on R-rated movie commercials featuring violence, such as limiting the amount of blows or punches shown per R-rated movie spot.

Still others say MTV Networks has always been careful in taking R-rated movie commercials.

DreamWorks Pictures, which just released its R-rated movie "Almost Famous," wanted to air a spot of a young man jumping from the motel balcony into a pool.

"MTV would not take the spot, and then I agreed with them," said Terry Press, head of marketing for DreamWorks Pictures. "And I took it out of everything." The concern was that young viewers might imitate the stunt. "My question is, at what point are the parents responsible?" Ms. Press said.

Movie marketing executives say targeting only underage consumers doesn't make economic sense. For R-rated action films that skew young, movie studios primarily target an 18-24 or 18-34 demo -- as was the case for Dimension Films' "Scary Movie," the "Scream" film franchise or Warner Bros.' "The Matrix" -- since there's more money to be made with older consumers.

"I'm going to make more money with the older audience," said one marketing executive. "Because well over half those under-age teens are not going to make it in anyway."

Still, media executives are concerned what impact the report will have if such guidelines are imposed.

"The only programs we could buy would be like [NBC's] `The West Wing' and `Dateline,' " said Mr. Schaffner."But no young adults watch those shows, and you'd never be able to open a movie."

Nina Link, president of Magazine Publishers of America, cited the additional Senate Commerce Committee hearings on Sept. 27 as grounds for not making extensive comments, but said through a spokeswoman "we keep coming back to the same thing -- First Amendment rights."

At least one publishing executive said she'd abide by ad restrictions.

"If the FTC would say `There should not be R-rated [movie] advertising in your magazine,' I would not oppose that -- half as a magazine professional and half as a parent," said Lynn Lehmkuhl, president of Teen. Though that title was cited as running ads for R-rated movies, Ms. Lehmkuhl said "to my knowledge, in the past year we haven't gotten an R-rated movie ad."

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