The Great TV Violence Hype


TIME – Spectator Column – July 12, 1993

The Great TV Violence Hype

The networks’ new parental advisories are almost pathetically beside the point

WHEN FIVE different Senators and Representatives independently attach themselves to the same second-string issue, one tends to assume the issue is a phony, a subject about which it is very easy to posture while spending nothing and upsetting no one. When the issue is television violence, which has been the subject of a dozen high-profile, low-impact congressional hearings since 1952, the Capitol Hill moralizing seems almost retro.

But the spectacle, a classic Washington combination of cynicism and naivete, seems different this time. For one thing, the lead hectors are not Helmsian right-wingers but liberal Democrats, Senator Paul Simon and Representative Edward Markey. This time, too, TV executives are groveling a bit, making mea culpas. “It’s hard not to believe we’ve had some role in this,” says Howard Stringer, CBS’s president. Ted Turner told one congressional committee that he and his peers are “guilty of murder.” And so, this time, the broadcasters felt obliged to make some concrete concession: starting two months from now, programs that each network deems potentially upsetting will carry the warning, DUE TO SOME VIOLENT CONTENT, PARENTAL DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

The impetus is the belief that if kids watch violent shows, some of them will become criminally violent. “An avalanche” of definitive, unequivocal research has proved this notion, Senator Simon said last week. For two decades the psychology establishment and do-gooders have repeated this mantra. In fact, the connections are murky. Studies that find no links between TV and violence — and there have been many — tend not to be published or publicized.

While the bulk of published research has indeed found some correlation between watching fictitious violence and behaving aggressively, the correlation is statistically quite modest; most of the observed “aggressiveness” is bratty boisterousness, not violence. And causality — he sees Walker, Texas Ranger and therefore seriously hurts someone — is nowhere convincingly demonstrable. Even Brandon Centerwall, a prominent anti- TV researcher at the University of Washington, figures that watching TV increases kids’ average level of physical aggressiveness only 5%.

The scholarly corpus is not altogether compelling, and neither is the very problem: Where is this terrifying glut of TV ultra-violence? Senator Simon’s galvanizing instance is a scene from a chain-saw murder movie he happened on seven years ago in an Illinois motel room; he doesn’t know what it was or who was showing it, and he admits he hasn’t watched a lot of TV since. It’s true, during the ratings-sweeps periods, the networks each put on a few movies that include scenes of comparatively graphic violence. But those are anomalies, and as theatrical films they wouldn’t even get PG-13 ratings.

Simon says he doesn’t want to discourage salutary, upper-middle-class violence on TV, such as that of The Civil War on PBS. Yet his research avalanche makes no distinction between George Romero and Ken Burns in attributing crime to TV mayhem. Nope, violence is violence — and Looney Tunes, with 1.33 violent acts a minute, is four times as bad as MTV, with only .33. Bugs Bunny creates sociopaths? “I don’t want to dismiss cartoon violence,” the Senator says.

Terry Rakolta, the Michigan woman who founded Americans for Responsible Television, thinks the networks’ new advisory system is ineffectual, serving only to make Congressmen and network executives feel nice about themselves. And she’s right: it’s a pseudo-fix, quick, clean and breathtakingly easy compared with doing any of the things that would reduce actual violence — banning private gun ownership, for instance.

Just a few weeks ago, David R. Ginsburg, a prolific movie-of-the-week producer, said all the do-good chatter hadn’t had any effect. “In the literal notes-from-standard-and-practices sense, I don’t think I can point to any changes of attitude.” Last week, however, Ginsburg called back. “You know,” he says now, “ever since we talked all I’ve heard about from the networks is violence. The word is out.”

And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But must we watch Congressmen and show- business bosses on Capitol Hill grandly congratulating themselves, talking as though they are making some real contribution to curing America’s beastliness? Particularly with Washington coming off a historically bloody, 24-homicide week, they seemed irrelevant goofballs yelling “Theater!” in a crowded fire.