, Research Paper
A Practical Approach to Television Violence As difficult as this issue is, I believe it can be addressed. My report shows that some progress has already begun in several areas. Attention needs to be focused on how and why some programming has begun to move in the right direction and why the rest has not. “What this issue needs, more than anything else, is cool heads on all sides of the problem: the network executives, the creative community, the government, researchers and advocacy groups. All sides need to worry less about how each development affects only them and instead look at the needs of everyone.”(U.C.L.A. 5) In the broadcast world, the four television networks, ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC, have begun to get the message about television violence. The programming they completely control, series and television movies, has, for the most part shown some promising signs and now reflects, on the whole, relatively few issues of concern as compared to other network television formats. I contend that this is a result of consumer pressure, rather that governmental regulation. The violence contained in the most disturbing television series is minor in comparison to that contained in theatrical films shown on network television. And that violence, edited as it is, is tame compared to films shown in theaters, in home videos and on pay cable. Today, we see few programs with violence as their central theme. More programming uses violence well or does not use it at all. The public seems to be responding. Of the top 30 shows of the season, only two are listed as raising concerns about violence. It is possible to create popular programs that do not resort to inappropriate uses of violence. Advisories need to be more consistently applied here.(U.C.L.A. 13) Ultimately, however, it was the regulatory framework established by the Communications Act of 1934 and a belief and trust in the strong private broadcasting system that has been allowed to evolve within that framework that proved most crucial. Section 326 of the Communications Act provides the abiding standard. In matters of content, “nothing in this chapter shall be understood or construed to give the [Federal Communications] Commission the power of censorship over the radio communications or signals transmitted by any radio [or television] station, and no regulation or condition shall be promulgated or fixed by the Commission which shall interfere with the right of free speech or radio communication.”(U.S.C. 31) This body of laws clearly define any governmental involvement as a non-viable scenario. The only group involved in this volitile debate that feels otherwise is, ironically, the government. Must we, the people, obey the dictates of a government that refuses to obey those same dictates itself? The tension over potential content regulation that filled the air in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, however, remains with us in the 1990s as we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Communications Act. While more hearings and reports littered the landscape throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Congress assiduously avoided any acts that smacked of direct content regulation.(House 64) In 1990, however, this began to change as Congress took two significant steps that threaten to alter drastically the delicate balance previously maintained in this area. First, “Congress passed the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which not only sets advertising limits in children’s programming but requires the FCC, for the first time, to consider the extent to which a TV licensee has served the educational and informational needs of children when reviewing that station’s application for renewal of license.” (Childrens 16) As the 1993 Senate hearings drew to a close, an illuminating exchange took place. The committee chairman, Senator Earnest Hollings (D,S.C.), after hearing witnesses from the major networks, sought to discredit their position by playing a video tape, in the hearing room, of a short clip from the half-hour situation comedy Love and War. The clip was from an episode in which the cast of male and female actors, departing from their usual comedic wit in a restaurant that serves as the show’s regular set, engaged in a short slapstick barroom brawl scene. Senator Hollings seemed appalled, strongly suggesting that this type of prime-time “violence” was indefensible. Senator Conrad Burns (R,Mont.), sitting on the same panel, expressed a different view, he thought the scene was funny. The problem is compounded by the fact that virtually everyone concedes that some violence is “good” or “acceptable” simply because it is essential to a story line, necessary to depicting human conflict, or vital to reporting history and showing reality. No one would seriously regulate violence on news or sporting events or movies centered on the Holocaust of the Second World War. Even so,called “objective:” criteria would not help. How many punches or bullets are too many? Does it matter whether the specific program is a serious drama, a situation comedy, or an action/adventure? Or should the “criteria” be applied indiscriminately to all programs as long as they are likely to be viewed by significant numbers of children comprising a certain age group? Many of the legislative proposals that began to surface in 1993 have been justified on the grounds that since Congress can regulate many of the finest creative works, is clearly not the equivalent of indecent material. Any governmental effort to sanitize, channel, or otherwise direct the depiction of violence on television would undoubtedly be so overboard as to have a severe chilling effect on all entertainment programming. The continuing controversy over violence on television has largely been spurred and shaped by members of Congress and not the expert agency on communications. The FCC, in fact, over its long history, has rather steadfastly avoided becoming a national censorship board on any topic,especially one so illusive and complicated as violence. Even after coming under intense congressional pressure in the mid,1970s to study and possibly step into this policy quagmire, the Commission pointedly rejected any direct governmental role in overseeing television violence: “As a practical matter, it would be difficult to construct rules which would take into account all of the subjective considerations involved in making such judgments.” (Report 22) Predictably, enactment of the Television Program Improvement Act of 1990 led almost immediately to increased public pressure on the television industry to institute voluntary measures, followed by a series of hearings in both the House and Senate designed to assess the industry’s progress and performance.(Subcomm. 71) Moreover, unlike past deliberations, these most recent hearings were peppered with a number of specific legislative proposals. Included were measures that would, among other things, make it unlawful to distribute any “violent video programming during hours when children are reasonably likely to comprise a substantial portion of the audience,” (S.1383 11) A problem that becomes immediately apparent to me is there is no regulation that determines when children should be in bed. This may seem a bit rediculous, however, barring this form of regulation, any attempt at controlling violent content in the mass media through regulation would be largely ineffective. Parental enforcement is necessary. I would also like to know what constitutes “substantial”. One method of attempting to control the content of television that appears to be acceptable on the surface, though quite minipulative, and subject to bias by the differing perceptions of the meaning of “violence” has been suggested by congress. This would require the FCC to ” issue quarterly “violence television report cards” ranking both programs and sponsors according to violence,” (S.973 3) “require all television programming deemed violent to carry video and audio warning labels,” (S. 943 7) “and require all new television sets sold in the United States to be equipped with a so,called “V-Chip” that would enable viewers to block the display of channels, programs, and time slots containing material previously rated or labeled by the television industry as to violent content.”(H.R.2888 3) After decades probing the issue in one congressional committee after another, it is time to acknowledge, emphatically, that the simple choice is between censorship and responsible voluntary conduct. There is, on this topic, no middle ground. While the government can cajole the industry, even talk over the industry directly to the American public, it is ultimately the public that must decide whether to watch, protest against, or turn off particular violent programming. It cannot be legislated on a program, by, program basis.
We face a far more diverse information and entertainment marketplace than existed when Senator Pastore squared off with three over the air television networks which then controlled more than 90 percent of prime-time viewing. Policymakers must recognize this reality in their continuing efforts to monitor and influence a program content issue such as television violence. Indeed, with rapidly advancing communications technologies capable of spreading more sources of information and entertainment to a large audience, the role of government in such matters should be diminished, not strengthened. Violence will not and should not disappear from America’s television screens. There will always be stories worth telling that contain conflict and violence. Our founding fathers had the wisdom to recognize the importance of freedom of expression to a democratic society. The architects of the Communications Act had the foresight to incorporate that fundamental principle of the 1934 Act when they specifically denied the government the power of censorship over broadcast content. And, those who have been entrusted with the responsibility for overseeing and administering the Act for the past sixty years have displayed similar wisdom in guarding this principle. The almost continuos forty-year record of congressional investigations, culminating in the 1993 violence hearing and numerous new concrete legislative proposals, provides compelling evidence that this principle cannot be taken for granted. However strong our common concern with violence on television, it is essential that the industry continue to police itself in response to legitimate criticism from viewers and their elected officials. Congress passed the Television Program Improvement Act of 1990 which granted a specific temporary exemption from the antitrust laws relative to “any joint discussion, consideration, review, action, or agreement by or among persons in the television industry for the purpose of, and limited to, developing and disseminating voluntary guidelines designed to alleviate the negative impact of violence in telecast material.” (Judicial 84) Thus, after many years of a relatively healthy interplay between industry and government that always stopped short of legislation, Congress enacted a measure effectively demanding action on the violent content of television programs. While this first legislative step only voluntary self-regulation, it still poses a new, more menacing threat to the no censorship standard of the Communication Act. In sum, “violence” laws would represent the worst possible form of content regulation, engaging those entrusted to administer such laws in a process destined to highlight both the harm and futility of government action. It is my heart felt position that the issue of television violence can be dealt with in a mature, responsible manner without having our public officials, who are foresworn to uphold our ever precious Constitution, and ALL of the laws of our great land, pass legislation which will violate our right to view any and all programming that WE see fit. In the spirit of cooperative societal decision making, the following suggestions appear to be unequaled in their non-partisan advisory quality. Furthermore, this would appear to be the only thoroughly contemplated reasoning that has occurred on any side of this issue. We will now examine what the role of each individual participant in this quandary should, in my opinion look like. Recognize that Practices and Standards departments are an inexpensive investment for the networks’ own peace of mind. The executives who run these departments at all four networks are extremely knowledgeable and should have unimpeded access to the highest levels of senior management. “Except in very rare instances, these departments should have the final say on the treatment of issues of violence. To program standards executives: apply to yourselves the standards you would apply to your competitors”. (UCLA 16) The television creative community should recognize the risk that violence in television and film can be used to substitute for good writing. The best writers and producers in television can create characters and compelling stories without unnecessarily filling the program with the scenes of violence. Through your own organizations such as “The Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors, the guilds and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences hold meetings and discussions on issues related to the use of violence: showing consequences, graphic-ness, the need for context and techniques to avoid over reliance on scenes of violence. Include the network’s development executives in these discussions.” (UCLA 16) The government must understand the important role that it plays in the issue of violence in the media. Do not underestimate your power to shape public opinions. As much as possible, speak to the television industry with one voice. Use your powerful voice to encourage, persuade, cajole and, when necessary, threaten. Recognize when progress is made. The television violence issue needs sustained leadership from the government. “Broadcasters should not have to fear all understandings and arrangements disappear after every election or change in government.” (UCLA 17) Network affiliates must put pressure on the networks. Let them know what programming you do not like or which is unsuitable for your area. Do so with examples and with detail of the format, themes or scenes of violence you do not consider suitable. “In conjunction with the network’s practices and standards department, create your own standards for network promotions and your own local and syndicated programming. Network promotions designed for 10:00 should not be run on your station in the afternoon or very early evening.” (UCLA 17) In our schools, media literacy should never replace social studies or science in the curriculum. But television is an important part of students’ lives. Teachers should ask their students about what they watch and how accurately it reflects their lives. “Discussions of how television deals with gender and racial stereotyping, depictions of historical events and social trends can all be incorporated into existing lesson plans. Teachers can be more media literate and include these concepts in their teaching.” (UCLA 18) In the school of my own children, there is already in place the perfect format for just such a course. This is refferred to as “Tech Ed.”, or, technical education. There is not currently a media literacy course offered, why not, certainly television is technical, and no doubt requires some form of education. Most importantly advice to parents. You cannot watch all television with your children, but you can occasionally watch your child watch television. You can ask them about what they watch. What lessons are they assimilating? Can they distinguish between animation and live action? Do they realize that they can settle disputes without resorting to violence? Why do they like some television characters and not others? Explore some of the technological devices now or soon to be on the market to help you control what your children watch. If your television already has a channel block feature, learn how to use it. Whether or not there ultimately is a V-Chip, look at devices such as The Telecommander or TV Guardian that not only control which programs your children watch, but how much television and at what times. “Make your views known to television stations and broadcast networks.” (UCLA 18)
; UCLA Center for Communication Policy, Television Violence Monitoring Project Published 10/10/95 207 U.S.C. 326 (1988) See, e.g., Subcomm. on Communications of the House Comm. on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., Report on Violence and Television 1 (Comm. Print 1977). Children’s Television Act of 1990, Pub. No. 101,437, 104 Stat. 996(codified at 47 U.S.C. 303a,303b,393a,39(Supp. IV 1992)). Report on the Brdcst. of Violent, Indecent, and Obscene Material, Report 51 F.C.C.2d 418,419 (1975). (Subcomm.) See Implementation of the Television Program Improvement Act of 1990: Joint Hearings Before the Subcomm. on the Constitution and the Subcomm. on Juvenile Justice of the Comm. on the Judiciary, 103d Cong., 1st Sess. (1993); Violence on Television: Hearings Before the Subcomm.on Telecommunications and Finance of the Comm. on Energy and Commerce,103d Cong., 1st Sess.(1993); Hearings on Bills to Regulate TV Violence Before the Comm. on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 103d., 1st Sess. (1993). S. 1383, 103d Cong., 1st Sess. 3 (1993) (introduced by Sens. Earnest F. Hollings (D,S.C.) and Daniel K. Inouye (D,Haw.)). S.973, 103fd Cong., 1st Sess. (1993) (introduced by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D,N.D.) and Kent Conrad (D,N.D.)); H.R. 2159, 103d Cong., 1st Sess. (1993) (introduced by Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D,Ill.)). S.943, 103d Cong., 1st Sess. (1993) (introduced by Sen. David Durenberger (R,Minn.)). H.R. 2888, 103d Cong., 1st Sess. (1993) (introduced by Rep. Edward J. Markey D,Mass.) Judicial Improvements Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101,650,501(c),104 Stat. 5089, 5127 (codified at 47 U.S.C. 303c (Supp. IV 1992)).