Wartime love affair

Hollywood and Washington make love, not war -- and the curtain falls on legislation unfriendly to the entertainment industry.

Published December 7, 2001 9:45PM (EST)

Just before Congress recessed for the Thanksgiving Day holiday, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., convened a packed hearing of the House International Relations Committee that would tackle the question of how America could win the propaganda war overseas. The panel considered the testimony of a former diplomat, a radio station tycoon, an Arab newspaper reporter, an advertising executive and then heard from John Romano, a Hollywood producer whose credits include such TV fare as "Third Watch," "Dark Angel" and "Party of Five."

When Hyde had called looking for Hollywood input, the Motion Picture Association of America, the industry's main lobbying arm in Washington, had suggested Romano, who had grand ideas on what Congress could do to improve its P.R. overseas. His first suggestion: Save the Middle East from bad American TV. Specifically, he suggested pulling from foreign airwaves programs like "Baywatch" and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," the two most popular U.S. shows in the Arab world.

"What comes through to people watching such shows is an impression, not of the humanity that we share with them, but only of the plenty and prosperity of our lives -- how we dress, what we own, the cars we drive," Romano told members of the committee. "What they'll see abroad is what sells abroad, which is often the lowest common denominator product."

Instead of Southern California beach bunnies, Romano said the industry should send shows that he believes more accurately depict America -- programs, Romano said, like his own firefighter drama "Third Watch," or "The Practice" or "ER." And he also proposed special programming, like docu-dramas on the Bill of Rights, more Arab-American characters in TV shows, and miniseries highlighting America's struggles as a nation, touching on subjects like the Civil War and slavery.

And if foreign markets prove uninterested in buying such fare, Romano told the committee, Washington should be willing to subsidize it. "Let's give it to them for free," Romano advised. "It's our own interest we'd be serving."

The idea of taxpayer-funded agitprop is only one pie-in-the-sky proposition to come out of ongoing meetings between representatives from Hollywood and Washington, post-Sept. 11, the most recent on Thursday. And so far, the meetings have concluded with little more than harebrained posturing -- like documentary producer Craig Haffner's hope, reported in the New York Times, that Hollywood would return to war-torn inspirational tales like "Mrs. Miniver."

That Hollywood and Washington have decided to make love, not war, was punctuated this week when Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a vocal foe of entertainment marketing toward children, announced that he and his co-sponsors (including Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Robert Byrd, D-W.V.; and Herb Kohl, D-Wis.) of a bill to crack down on the industry would drop the legislation, after a Federal Trade Commission report issued this week showed some improvement from the industry in targeting teens-and-under with adult content.

"Except for the music industry, marketing self-regulation is working -- which was my hope all along -- and there is no pressing need for government standard-setting," Lieberman said.

Actually, the FTC report still said the entertainment industry had a ways to go, stating "all three industries (movies, music and video games) do continue to advertise violent R-rated movies, M-rated games and explicit content recordings in media popular with teens." It specifically slapped the record industry for making virtually no progress on the issue at all. But that didn't stop Recording Industry Association of America president and CEO Hilary Rosen from mugging nice with the White House Thursday -- the day after the report was released -- solemnly telling the Hollywood Reporter of the meeting's goal of "promoting the dual message of patriotism and humanitarianism."

MPAA president Jack Valenti, meanwhile, is practically singing "Happy Days are Here Again." "One thing I can say about the White House is that the Bush administration has not attacked Hollywood at all," Valenti tells Salon. "As a matter of fact, they seem to be reaching out to us, trying to create a dialogue. That was absolutely not so in the previous administration."

That was before Hollywood enlisted in the war effort.

The outrage created when the FTC issued its report last year about the entertainment industry's marketing to children seems to have all but dissipated. That study, released in September 2000, blasted the industry for aggressively targeting kids with violent video games, films and music deemed more suitable for adults. At the time, Lieberman, stumping as the Democrats' vice presidential candidate, and others warned the industry that it should clean up its act or face government regulation. And earlier this year, Lieberman, chairman of the powerful Senate Governmental Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would subject Hollywood to civil penalties for marketing R-rated films and music labeled for explicit content to young audiences.

In July, MPAA chief Jack Valenti testified against Lieberman's bill before a less than sympathetic audience on Capitol Hill. But that was in the summer. These days, Valenti seems to be the man of the hour with an administration that until recently had virtually no relationship with the entertainment world -- unless you count Ricky Martin, of course. And as Hollywood's troubles in Washington fade to black, the feeling of appreciation is increasingly mutual.

In early November, Valenti organized a much-touted meeting between Karl Rove, President Bush's senior political strategist, and four dozen of Tinseltown's most powerful people, including the head of every major studio, music industry executives and representatives from each of the guilds representing actors, writers and directors. On the table was the question of what Hollywood could do to help out the war against terrorism.

After the meeting, both Valenti and Rove practically rushed reporters to insist that the government had not proposed turning the industry into a propaganda machine reminiscent of the World War II era. "Content was off the table," Valenti said. "Directors, writers, producers and studios will determine the kind of pictures they choose to make and compelling stories they wish to tell."

Meanwhile, the industry has discussed green-lighting timely war films that will stimulate patriotism. Sylvester Stallone has talked about a fourth installment of "Rambo," set in Afghanistan and reportedly involving a terrorist modeled after Osama bin Laden. At Hyde's hearing, Romano and other panelists tossed around similar ideas, including the development of a video game in which bin Laden would be cast as the bad guy. The game would be marketed exclusively to audiences in the Middle East.

And all of this comes without government prodding, Valenti insists. "Look, I have spent 30 years keeping the government out of movies, fighting censorship and protecting the First Amendment, fiercely and passionately, and that is what I am doing now," he says. "The White House knows that the minute it brings up content that I am walking out of the room and taking everybody in the creative community with me. So far, they have not crossed that line."

Of course, they also wouldn't need to. A Rambo vs. Osama movie would never get the go-ahead unless the studios decided a hungry public would be interested in paying for it. It's a rare moment when Hollywood's and Washington's interests -- even if it includes a violent Stallone movie with a likely strong appeal to children -- merge.

And conveniently, by Valenti's account, the "anti-Hollywood" bias in Washington has quieted and bills that don't favor the industry have "gone into exile." To hear Valenti tell it, none of that matters at a time like this. "We are a country and an industry at war, and that's what we are entirely focused on," he says.

By Holly Bailey

Holly Bailey is a freelance writer living in Washington D.C.

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