LOS ANGELES, Dec. 26 (UPI) -- I often wonder which is worse: crying babies at PG-13 or R-rated films, who don't understand what's onscreen but are tortured by the cranked-up sound; or pre-schoolers and other small children, who understand just enough to be either horrified or whining with boredom.
Naturally, I encounter both sets pretty much every time I go to the movies. The memory of enduring what seemed like an entire Mommy-and-me outing, complete with strollers, at an afternoon showing of "Gladiator" still rankles. Granted, I'm a cheapskate who prefers bargain matinees, thus increasing the odds of these encounters, but still.
So I'm glad the Federal Trade Commission, which this month commended movie and video game makers for improving their rating systems and marketing campaigns to minors, has found progress. Even though I know that tiny tots aren't really what the FTC was referring to fifteen months ago, when it released its original scathing report that moviemakers regularly target minors for R-rated films.
But can't something be done about parental responsibility? At the least, some public shaming might be in order. A friend of mine tried this tactic when he found himself seated next to an infant at a screening of "Alive," the cannibalism-in-the-Andes film released by Hollywood Pictures several years ago.
"How sweet," he said to the child's mother. "Baby's first Disney picture."
The moviegoers Hollywood truly wants, though, are 12-to-17-year-old boys, who will go see the latest gross-out/slasher flick the weekend it opens - and then happily pay to see it with their friends over and over again. This is the major age group the FTC was referring to in its original report, which cited reams of examples of R-rated content being marketed to children.
But very young children are often brought along with older siblings who demand to see something they've noticed advertised on billboards, on the sides of buses, in newspapers and magazines, in eye-catching posters at the multiplex, and on TV during what was once quaintly known as the family hour.
So when Jack Valenti, the 79-year-old head of the Motion Picture Association of America, insists, as he constantly does, that R-rated movies aren't marketed to children, it's obvious how long it's been since he's raised children.
By the time today's children are tweens (as marketers now call the 6-to-11-year-old demographic), they often shun G and PG-rated movies as babyish. My own pre-teen daughter basically had to be dragged to "Monsters, Inc.," even though I was dying to see it. Children this age help decide what movie the family sees more than two-thirds of the time, according to Simmons Market Research.
"The FTC has a track record of acknowledging things that appear to be wrong and then doing nothing," says children's marketing consultant James U. McNeal. "There are already laws in place. I hate to sound like the Clinton administration about guns, but it's true."
Obviously, McNeal, a legendary guru in his field, knows what he's talking about. Although the original FTC report was much-publicized, as were the ensuing Senate hearings, no new federal regulations were enacted. But public pressure and embarrassment among Hollywood executives did result in some voluntary curbs.
Disney immediately announced that its ABC network would no longer accept ads for R-rated films before 9 p.m. This privately irked competing movie studios, but some followed suit, although less strictly. Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox said they won't advertise R-rated films on any TV show for which at least 35% of the audience is younger than 17 years old.
The Viacom-owned MTV Networks have always been fairly strict about accepting advertising deemed inappropriate for younger viewers. A few years ago, MTV refused to allow a commercial for the PG-13 sci-fi action thriller "The Fifth Element" to run on its Nickelodeon children's cable channel. Late last year, it banned a commercial for Candie's shoes, which showed a naked couple cavorting in the shower, from airing before 9 p.m. on MTV.
After the original FTC report, the National Association of Theater Owners adopted new guidelines prohibiting previews for R-rated films from being advertised to audiences for G or PG-rated features. Universal voluntarily decided not to attach a preview for the violent (but PG-13) "The Mummy Returns" to the PG-rated holiday movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" last year.
Perhaps the studio had been sensitized by Dr. Seuss's widow, Audrey Geisel, who held veto power over "The Grinch" script and had refused to allow what she called "too many bathroom jokes."
All this has had an effect. During last year's Presidential campaign, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said he wanted an annual FTC entertainment industry review for the next five years.
But in the wake of this month's follow-up FTC report, Lieberman said he's seen progress in Hollywood. So he's shelved legislation introduced a few months ago that would have fined media companies violating industry ratings guidelines.
There are those who say the FTC criticism has also had a chilling effect. That's the term I constantly hear bandied about here in Hollywood. But is a chilling effect always so terrible? In the case of a wet blanket thrown over a trashcan fire it can actually be quite welcome.
Not, I suppose, if you're the vagrant who started the fire. But I say my right not to smell a noxious fire in the alley outweighs the vagrant's right to a weenie roast.
Odds are, in any case, that the dreaded chilling effect will be more like a few ice cubes lobbed at a hot tub in the Playboy Mansion grotto. Annoying, possibly, but not exactly the first sign of a cultural Ice Age.
There is such a thing as public decency, and it isn't necessarily censorship every time this is respected. Yes, standards change with time: as everyone always points out, producers are now free to show married TV couples in the same bed. What no one mentions is that they're no longer free to write Amos & Andy-type characters.
This is hardly a bad thing. But it is an example of creative restraints that somehow haven't destroyed our artistic freedom.