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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
Works Cited;
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)).

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