Critics doubt TV industry's plans to curb violence

February 02, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Television reformers responded with skepticism yesterday to the cable and broadcast industries' plans for curbing violence on TV, calling their promises nothing more than empty rhetoric.

Industry executives said during news conferences in Washington yesterday that they would have their programming independently monitored as a means of reducing violence on the screen.

Cable systems went a step further, saying they would use technology that would allow parents to keep their children from viewing violent programs.

"We are taking action to give viewers more control over what they are watching, and, on a long-term basis, seeking to reduce the level of gratuitous violence on television," said Winston H. Cox, chairman of the Showtime cable network.

But TV reformers and other experts said the industry was concerned only with image-mending and heading off congressional legislation to restrict violent TV programs.

They predicted that yesterday's announcements will do little or nothing to reduce what most Americans consider excessive violence on the screen.

"I think it won't make a bit of difference," said Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television.

"Children's television is going to be just as peculiarly comic-book violent as it has been in the past."

"Unfortunately, it looks like there's no substance. It appears to be mostly PR," said Charlene Hughins-Uhl, chairwoman of the Maryland Campaign for Kids' TV.

"It's all very vague," said Dr. George Gerbner, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Right now, I take their announcements and plans with a grain of salt . . . as just a lot of talk."

Television executives announced the following plans:

* Cable programmers -- such as Showtime, HBO and TNT -- endorsed a ratings system, as well as technology that could block out violent programs on each TV set in each home. That technology is called the V-chip, a computer chip that is currently not mandated for U.S. televisions.

Cable executives also promised to set up an "independent" body to monitor the levels of violence in their programs.

* The broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- stopped short of endorsing either a ratings system or use of the V-chip. But they did announce a plan to hire someone to monitor them on violence, as well as issue an annual "qualitative" study of the findings.

They emphasized that their monitoring would be separate from the monitoring done by the cable programmers.

Several politicians most publicly involved in the TV violence debate were on hand during yesterday's news conferences.

"It's the dawn of new era," Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., said at the cable industry's initiatives. "They are to be congratulated."

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., on hand with the broadcast executives, said they too should be congratulated. He said he plans to drop plans for legislation to restrict violent shows, unless independent monitoring doesn't curtail them.

Both Mr. Simon and Mr. Markey have an interest in hailing yesterday's announcements.

In doing so, they indirectly congratulate themselves. The V-chip proposal, which the cable industry endorsed, is Mr. Markey's idea. And Mr. Simon has made headlines for months threatening to reduce the level of violence on network TV with legislation.

But a liberal Democrat, such as Mr. Simon, would leave himself open to charges of censorship if he introduced such legislation. One solution to that problem is to create the perception that the networks are doing something that will reduce TV violence.

Perception played a big part in yesterday's announcements. CBS President Howard Stringer hinted at the outcome last month in an interview in which he said he had told Mr. Simon: "Declare a victory in reducing TV violence . . . and let's move on."

While some early reports yesterday erroneously hailed a new era of co-operation between the networks and cable, it was anything but. The separate news conferences told the story.

Cable can afford a ratings system and V-chip technology because advertisers are not its main source of revenue.

The networks, though, cannot. A "violent" rating will drive advertisers away, as happened with "NYPD Blue" this year.

This left ABC in the odd position of losing money on a highly rated show.

Cable put the networks on the defensive yesterday with its more wide-reaching promises of reform. It surely scored PR points.

Dr. Gerbner, for one, was harder on the broadcasters.

Regarding their talk of a "qualitative" study, Dr. Gerbner said, "Qualitative is a code word for personal impressions. It means they're going to hire somebody who will tell them what's violent and what's not.

"Now, in fact, they have had someone doing that for over a year. And, lo and behold, they have not been able to find any violent programs. . . . That's the kind of independent monitoring they must have in mind."

In terms of cable, Dr. Gerbner said he'd withhold judgment until he saw who they hired to do their independent monitoring.

Last year, the National Cable Television Association hired Dr. Gerbner, the pioneer in TV violence research, to do such a study, which was subsequently published.

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