THE major cable-TV networks plan this week to announce a panel to monitor their channels for violence.
Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, who urged TV programmers last year to create an independent monitoring committee of their own or face legislation to regulate TV violence, agreed in a meeting last week with cable executives that the panel should include cable TV representatives and other interested parties, such as education groups and parent associations, an industry official says.
The panel will publish an annual report to monitor networks' success - or lack thereof - in reducing violence. Negative public reactions could scare off advertisers and, thus, further encourage networks to seek ways to lower the level of violence on their channels.
Last month, the cable industry first endorsed a plan for a monitoring group - a plan that also supports a voluntary rating system and use of a V-chip electronic device allowing viewers to block out violent programs.
Cable's move seems to have set the stage for maneuvering between cable firms and broadcasters. While the plan doesn't directly bind broadcasters, it applies a form of peer pressure to networks to join in.
Last week, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox agreed, in principle, to use an independent monitor to review their programming for violent content. But they generally oppose development of a violence-ratings system and V-chip use on the grounds that they would result in advertiser defections, according to Doug Wills, National Association of Broadcasters spokesman.
``As an advertising-supported business, the networks are concerned that a ratings system will tag them with a scarlet letter that will frighten advertisers away,'' he said.
The result, networks say, is that the plan will hurt broadcasters more because cable, while reliant on ad revenues, can also fall back on subscription fees.
``I don't think so,'' said Torie Clarke, National Cable Television Association spokeswoman. ``Cable [TV] is highly dependent on ad ... revenues as well. If everyone endorses this plan, I think everything will be equitable.''
The plan comes at a time when politicians have pressured the entertainment industry to show more self-restraint.
Senator Simon says an outside monitor would ensure less on-air violence. But the V-chip isn't getting the same enthusiasm.
One criticism is that kids watch TV unsupervised. Unless adults program the chip to block out violent shows, kids could watch them when their parents are out. ``That's like saying that we don't need gun control because people will still have guns,'' said Bob Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.
Others say Americans will think twice before buying the V-chip because of its cost and criticism of it. ``When you look at all sides of this coin, the V-chip isn't a solution,'' said Robert Knight, cultural-affairs director at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank in Washington. ``Sure, it will give parents more control. But I don't think networks should use it as a substitute for cleaning up their act.''
The ratings system is also being criticized. Critics cite studies of how ineffective ratings were in curbing violence in films.
``That's nonsense,'' said Richard Heffner, classification and ratings administration chairman at the Motion Pictures Association of America. ``The ratings system is not meant to curb violence but to identify the levels of violent content in a movie.''
Network officials who oppose adopting a ratings system agree, saying ``careful and responsible'' programming has resulted in less on-air violence.
The networks have taken steps to air violent shows when children are unlikely to watch TV. And for violent shows, networks have printed and aired parental advisories. ``Virtually every program [ABC airs] is rated `G,' '' said Julie Hoover, ABC's corporate-communication vice president. ``For programs with sensitive or violent content, ABC always airs advisories before the show begins.''
But a recent congressional survey shows that the industry's violence advisories are not routinely carried out.
The survey reviewed local listings in the Washington Post and TV Guide to see if the industrywide policy to give parents advance notice of TV programs containing violence was included in the listings.
The survey showed that, of the 450 programs carrying advisories for violence, less than half were listed in program guides; about two-thirds of the advisories were listed as general ``parental guidance'' advisories rather than as the proposed ``violence advisories.''
``The industry's plan to air advisories [for programs] they themselves have labeled violent remains unfulfilled at this point,'' said Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, who has introduced legislation that would require TV makers to install the V-chip.
Nevertheless, the acceptance of a monitoring system is a major step for the networks, which have resisted it for months, saying their own standards and practices operations have done the job.
It's also a major step for the cable industry, which has been more resistant than broadcasters to restraints on violence and sex.
``Anything that they [cable and broadcasters] can possibly do to reduce violence is good,'' said Mary Mulvihill, executive director of the National Parenting Association.
``Because, let's face it, it's not grandma or grandpa telling the stories anymore, it's TV. And programmers need to start appealing to the best instincts in both adults and children,'' she added.