Violence advisory irks TV reformers Too many loopholes, they contend

July 01, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It's called the "Advance Parental Advisory Plan." But the networks' plan to clean up their act on TV violence through the use of warning labels doesn't even cover children's programming.

Such holes led to skepticism and disappointment among TV reformers at yesterday's announcement of a deal between the TV industry and congressional critics of TV violence, Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat, and U.S. Rep Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. The networks, not consumers, are the big winners, say reformers.

"This is clearly a pre-emptive move by the networks to deflect

the rising tide of criticism around the issue of TV violence," said Kathryn Montgomery, director of the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based public interest group.

Other notable exceptions to the guidelines are Saturday morning cartoons as well as reruns and cable programs. The plan covers only prime time -- the hours from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. -- and allows the networks to police themselves.

"Virtually all cartoons contain some violence," said Charlene Hughins Uhl, chairwoman of the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV. "If they are not applying the warnings to such shows, it sounds like maybe what they are doing is not going to meet the needs of children at all."

Network executives at yesterday's news conference raised additional concerns with their remarks that none of the series currently on TV is violent enough to qualify for the warning.

"Now that I see the gloss the TV industry is putting on it today, I'm not too happy about the agreement," said William S. Abbott, president of the Foundation to Improve Television, a Boston-based group that has been pressing lawmakers for stricter rules on TV violence.

According to the network executives, the only show certain to carry the warning next fall is ABC's controversial new police drama by Steven Bochco, "N.Y.P.D. Blue." However, already last month Tom Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities/ABC, had said the show would carry an advisory after affiliates reacted negatively to the language and violence in the pilot episode.

The warnings are most likely to appear on made-for-TV movies, the network executives said, adding that as many as one in four might be labeled as violent.

Networks will decide which shows to issue a warning on, based upon when:

* The overall level of violence in a program, the graphic nature of the violent content or when the tone, message or mood of the program makes it appropriate.

* The context of the violent depiction, the composition of the intended audience and the time period of the show make it fitting.

* Violence would not necessarily be expected in a particular show or when it is graphic or pervasive.

After two years, the networks will review the success of the warning system and make any changes, the broadcast executives said.

The agreement buys the networks two more years of self-regulation at a time when there is clearly public will for stricter measures, said Ms. Montgomery, author of "Target Prime Time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle Over Entertainment Television."

While the networks continue to argue that there is no conclusive evidence that viewing violence leads to aggressive behavior, most public health officials, child advocates and media experts feel otherwise, Ms. Montgomery said.

The most persuasive of the 3,000 studies on the effects of TV violence is last year's report from the American Psychological Association titled "Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society."

It says: "The accumulated research clearly demonstrates a correlation between viewing violence and aggressive behavior -- that is, heavy viewers behave more aggressively than light viewers. Children and adults who watch a large number of aggressive programs also tend to hold attitudes and values that favor the use of aggression to resolve conflicts."

The report is the work of nine psychologists who were members of a task force on TV and society appointed by the APA. It has become the bible of the Senate hearings, quoted repeatedly by Senator Simon and others.

The report is the basis for recent articles in publications ranging from the New Yorker to Mother Jones castigating Hollywood producers for knowingly making programs with violent content that is harmful to children. It is the source for the often-quoted statistics that by the time the average child graduates from elementary school, she or he will have witnessed at least 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of assorted violence on TV.

The report did what none other had. Its authors surveyed all the research on TV violence and boiled it down to that one clear-cut, quotable paragraph. They also cited some of the most compelling studies, including:

* One by Dr. Brandon Centerwall, of the University of Washington, which documented the skyrocketing murder rate in South Africa after the introduction of TV in 1975.

* Another done in the mountainous regions of western Canada where incidents of hitting and biting among children almost doubled in two years after the 1973 introduction of TV.

* Another by Dr. Leonard Eron and several associates who followed the viewing habits of a group of children for more than two decades. They found that those exposed to TV violence showed increased aggression throughout the 22 years of the study.

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