Crank Up the Laugh Track the TV Moguls Forswear Violence

ELLEN GOODMAN

July 09, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- It's not that I am without sympathy for Hollywood. At times, the moguls of the entertainment world have, after all, been the innocent victims of false accusations.

Consider the man in Wichita, Kansas, who recently alerted the police after calling a video store and hearing these words in the background: ''Everyone down on the floor!'' When the cruiser arrived, the sound turned out to be a soundtrack. The scene of the crime was a scene from ''Sister Act.''

Nevertheless, I watched for years with morbid fascination as the entertainment industry denied any link between violent acts on the screen -- big or small -- and violent behavior in real life. Research piled up 3,000 studies high, showing that violence increases aggressiveness, fearfulness, callousness among young viewers. And so did the excuses.

Even the stars of the so-called capital of liberalism -- the protectors of endangered species, the wearers of red ribbons, and the fund-raisers of humane causes -- came to sound like the disinformation folk at the Tobacco Industry and the NRA:

''There is no absolute proof that violence begets violence.''

''We live in a violent society; we didn't create it.''

tTC ''Movies don't kill people; people kill people.''

The same actors, producers and executives who talked at Emmy and Oscar time about the rich possibilities of promoting social change through their media threw up their hands at the very mention of violence. Suddenly, they were only the helpless products of their society. Indeed, anybody who suggested that they should temper their product would be instantly Gored -- Tipper Gore-d -- as an enemy of liberty and free speech.

But finally, grudgingly and belatedly, a klatch of powerful entertainment figures is openly admitting that an overdose of violent viewing is harmful for children and other living creatures. It's almost as if the tobacco companies had finally confessed that smoking caused lung cancer.

In a breakthrough or at least a slow, grinding turnaround, four television networks agreed last week under congressional pressure to put a warning label on violent programs.

Maybe these much-heralded warnings merit a laugh track more than applause. After all, in this two-year trial the labels will only go on programs that the networks' own standards (!) departments decide are violent. They will appear on exactly one program in the fall: ''NYPD Blue.'' Moreover, the itty-bitty warning will merely flash on the screen before the program and during the break. And it will read -- Wimp Alert! -- ''Due to some violent content, parental discretion advised.''

But, in a phrase that will send chills down the mogul spine, this is a beginning. A beginning for the average American child who still sees 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television before he or she is out of grammar school.

One ''next step'' that's been suggested for television is the so-called ''V-chip'' which would allow the technologically non-phobic parent -- you know who you are, both of you -- to program violent shows off their set. Another step would follow the Europeans and relegate these shows for the late night hours.

The problem of violent entertainment is not only a problem of what appears on the networks, by no means the worst culprits, or even on television. Today's movie is on cable next year. Today's network show will be in reruns on independent stations until the year 2034. ''Ambush in Waco'' may have the half-life of nuclear waste. It's a problem of content, creativity and commitment that runs all across the industry.

The most dour, if not downright dismal, comment that accompanied the networks announcement was CBS's Howard Stringer's warning about the warnings: ''We don't want to turn the vast wasteland into the dull wasteland.'' Are these our options: mayhem or boredom?

Violence is the easy way in and out of a story. It finesses plot and character development. It ''travels well'' to foreign markets. Is that all Hollywood offers now: cheap thrills or no thrills?

On August 2, there will be a meeting of the whole television industry to discuss this. And Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America will be meeting with what he calls the ''creative community'' about deglamorizing violence in film. This is the time, no it's past time, for the star-studded names of Hollywood, the talent behind distant political causes and far-flung action committees, to change the world a bit closer to home. There is work to be done behind the scenes against the acts of violence.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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