Networks rewriting last summer's script on TV violence

January 23, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- The battle between Hollywood and Washington over violence on television has taken a surprising turn.

After months of promises by the networks to do better, Hollywood is suddenly telling Washington to back off. As a result, viewers are going to see more violence in coming months.

The message from the networks, played out during the just-completed press tour in Los Angeles, could not be clearer. We are not the problem, they said.

What a difference from six months ago, when ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox all acknowledged that media violence probably plays some role in real-life violence, and they vowed to clean up their acts.

"I don't think the networks when it comes to violence have anything to be guilty about," ABC president Robert Iger said here last week. "We have been extremely successful for years at self-censoring our product in a very, very responsible way."

Iger called the rhetoric of Sen. Paul Simon and others in Washington who have threatened government intervention "negative, unproductive, dangerous and frightening."

Furthermore, Iger said he'd air "Murder in the Heartland" again if he had it to do over.

The bloody docudrama, which ABC aired during a May sweeps marked by wall-to-wall guns and gore, came to symbolize excessive television violence during hearings in Washington last spring and summer. In July, Ted Harbert, president of ABC's entertainment division, said it was a mistake to have aired the film.

Attempting to revise the record, Iger last week said: " 'Murder in the Heartland' was a high-quality program that dealt with the subject of violent mass murder in a responsible fashion, in a quality fashion."

Iger wasn't alone in saying such things during this press tour. "Network witch hunt" is how Howard Stringer of CBS says there will be some made-for- TV movies "sneaking onto our schedule )) through the back door" that "one isn't terribly proud of, and that are gratuitous as well as grisly."

Lucie Salhany, the chairman of Fox Broadcasting, described the senator's hearings.

"The thought police" was an NBC executive's assessment of Simon and the other senators and congressmen who've proposed legislation on TV violence.

"The thought police are scary," said Don Ohlmeyer, West Coast president for NBC. "They were scary to me when I was 15 years old and read George Orwell, and they are just as scary to me in 1993."

NBC executives presented an especially "in your face, Washington" tone during the recent press tour.

Usually, the networks use their tour time to hype new series and films for television critics in attendance -- like auto companies showing off new cars and hoping positive reviews will boost sales.

Not NBC. They brought out American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen and gave her a platform to attack Attorney General Janet Reno and others who've called for less TV violence.

"Our attorney general, Janet Reno, I think, epitomizes the irony and the hypocrisy that pervades this debate," said Strossen. "After all, she is the one who authorized the unprecedentedly violent government raid against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 75 people, including 25 children.

"I think we really have not heard enough criticism of that actual violence. And instead, we have the attorney general, who is responsible for it, pointing her finger and the public's attention at . . . the media and violence in the media."

Strossen dismissed the dozens of studies showing a link between TV violence and anti-social behavior, saying, "The social science studies that supposedly show that link have been thoroughly debunked by some of the most prestigious researchers in the country."

For the record, Strossen, who has no expertise in media research, is dead wrong. The only studies that have "debunked" those showing a link are two that were paid for by the networks.

But she's voicing the new position on TV violence now held by the networks -- the same networks that last summer accepted the research showing such links; the same networks that promised to work with reformers to minimize such effects.

Why did the networks go from conciliation and contrition to such belligerence on the issue in just six months?

There are a combination of factors involved. But the green light for the tough talk was given after two meetings Jan. 7 in Washington between Simon and network executives.

The official version of events from the senator's office was that the meetings were so productive that the Illinois Democrat saw no need -- for now -- to introduce legislation creating an oversight board to monitor television for violent content.

"Both meetings were positive and constructive, especially the meeting with the leaders from the cable industry," Simon aide David Carle told the Hollywood Reporter, a trade journal. "The meetings left Senator Simon hopeful that legislation will not be necessary."

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