Television violence results from television mediocrity

Phil Rosenthal

August 04, 1993|By Phil Rosenthal

JEFF Greenfield, one of the moderators of Monday's big industrywide violence-on-TV conference in Beverly Hills, noted rTC that depictions of violence in Greek tragedy occurred off stage.

The tragedy of American entertainment, as in American life, is that violence is front and center. It is everywhere, it seems, and -- while our elected officials are unwilling to take a tough stand on gun control and other lobbyist-sensitive issues that might have a direct effect on curbing violence -- the rallying cry of the hour is to stem the flow of it in our entertainment.

To hear the grandstanders, we step over so many corpses, both real and fictional, in the course of a day that we have become numb to the experience and passively accept it. TV is said to play a pivotal role because it is the single greatest influence in American life, far surpassing the influence of the family.

But what became evident, as panel bled into panel during a very long day of discussion at the hotel Merv Griffin bought with his "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" winnings, is that TV's true betrayal of its viewers isn't its violence content. That actually has declined in recent years despite public appetite for it in other media.

Violence is merely a symptom of TV's problem.

The real culprit, the reason there is as much violence on TV as there is, is mediocrity.

It's simply easier to make violence explicit rather than implicit. And if it's easier, it's cheaper. And if it's cheaper, it's done.

Mediocrity -- and viewer tolerance of it -- is why we have as much TV violence as we do. It's the same reason we have so many inane single-parent sitcoms and dispiriting fact-based TV movies. The formula has proven successful, so it's imitated, losing something with each simple-minded repetition.

Geraldine Laybourne, the MTV Networks executive who oversees Nickelodeon cable, correctly said the way the industry needs to respond to those who complain about TV programming is by developing more innovative programming, not more creative spin control.

If the television people, researchers and watchdog groups wringing their hands at Monday's conference were half as enthusiastic about changing their programming as they are about persecuting or defending it, the ills of TV would stand a chance to be cured.

But viewers aren't pushing hard enough, so there will be no quick fix.

The networks will continue to mount a two-part defense, denying that there is too much violence in the medium and, in the face of evidence to the contrary, claiming that violence is worse in other media.

Under duress, they will label violent programming. But we're not going to see warnings that read: The following program may include random acts of mediocrity. Discretion is advised.

That, as much as violence, is something to which the TV people have desensitized us.

Innovation? That's Greek to them.

Phil Rosenthal is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.

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