MTV tries to cool 'Beavis' debate raging in wake of fatal fire set by fan

November 09, 1993|By Jim DeBrosse | Jim DeBrosse,Cox News Service

It's not easy to find the place where 2-year-old Jessica Matthews died Oct. 6 in a trailer fire set by her 5-year-old brother, Austin.

The empty lot is now covered with fallen sycamore leaves on the last street in a mobile home park tucked away in the industrial suburb of Moraine, just south of Dayton, Ohio.

But Jessica's death -- which her mother, Darcy Burk, blames on Austin's modeling of MTV cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-head -- has reached far beyond the fences that cloak this tiny, low-income neighborhood from pricier suburban homes.

Amplified by the national media, including NBC's "Now" and the tabloid TV show "Inside Edition," the mother's charges against the popular cartoon show have echoed through the halls of Congress and rattled the executive offices of MTV high above Times Square.

Within days of the news, MTV executives promised to remove all references to fire by the two teen-age cult heroes, who often play with matches. And in less than two weeks, MTV moved back the time slot for its highly rated show to a time when young children, presumably, won't be watching.

As few as two or three years ago, Jessica's death might have been dismissed as one more sad, isolated consequence of young life errantly imitating low art.

But with television violence under closer government scrutiny than at any time in two decades, TV and congressional observers say MTV had no choice but to cool the controversy set off by "Beavis and Butt-head."

MTV's reaction "not only reflects the mood of Congress, but the whole mood out in TV land," said Richard D'Amato, press officer for the Senate Commerce Committee. Three different bills regulating TV violence are being considered by the committee.

"There's obvious and growing dissatisfaction with the way programming treats violence," Mr. D'Amato said. "People feel they're being used."

"They had to do something," said Dr. Robert D. Gould, a Manhattan psychiatrist and president of the National Coalition on TV Violence. "What network likes to have sponsors read about that? [MTV] got very anxious, especially with TV violence so active in everyone's minds right now."

Dr. Gould noted that three years ago U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., had been the only congressman receptive to regulating TV violence. "Now there are eight senators co-sponsoring three bills," Dr. Gould said. "There's obviously a groundswell on this."

Apparently, Disney studios has also been moved by the groundswell, removing a scene from its new film, "The Program," in which the teen-age hero lies down on a highway at night to prove his courage. One Pennsylvania teen-ager was killed and a secondly critically injured when they tried the stunt earlier this month. The movie was also blamed for a third teen-ager's injuries in Long Island.

Disney officials have no comment, other than a brief statement released Oct. 19 that said, in part: "While the scene in the movie in no way advocates this irresponsible activity, it is impossible for us to ignore that someone may have recklessly chosen to imitate it."

"Beavis and Butt-head" first drew criticism from fire officials in August. Chief Stan Crosley in Sidney, Ohio, about 30 miles north of Dayton, blamed the cartoon for a house fire that three girls started by igniting the spray from an aerosol can and burning some clothes. The chief said the girls told him they had seen it on the show and thought they could do it, too.

"People underestimate what children will pick up and assimilate watching television," said Dr. Yvette Harris, a developmental psychologist at Miami University of Ohio. Dr. Harris teaches a course on TV's effect on young children. "Parents should always monitor, screen and co-view programs with their children."

MTV officials said the recent changes in "Beavis and Butt-head" had nothing to do with Congress or sponsors or ratings -- or even with Jessica Matthew's death.

"We don't believe that 'Beavis and Butt-head' is responsible for what happened in Ohio, but we do believe these were the proper steps to take," said Carole Robinson, MTV's senior vice president of press relations.

Ms. Robinson said MTV began looking at the content of "Beavis and Butt-head" "two or three months before we made changes in the program. "We continue to look at everything we do at MTV, in terms of whether it's reaching the proper audience and is programmed responsibly."

Ms. Burk, the mother of Jessica and Austin, said she caught her son watching "Beavis and Butt-head" in the weeks before the fatal fire. She was frightened by the effect it was having on him, she said.

"I noticed my lighter and knives were coming up missing," she recalled. "He started running around the house laughing 'Uh, Uh, Uh,' " in the manner of the two cartoon characters. "I didn't like the way he was laughing -- it sent chills up my spine."

She says she has retained a lawyer for what she calls "an investigation" that could involve MTV.

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