Taming TV violence

February 16, 1994

Under pressure from the federal government and citizen watchdog groups, the broadcast and cable TV industry gradually has been forced to accept minimal voluntary measures to reduce the amount of violent programming beamed into the nation's homes. Last year, the industry grudgingly acceded to calls for parental warning labels for violent programming. Earlier this month, the industry announced it would hire an outside, independent expert to monitor the tube and produce an annual report on television violence.

The industry has been backed into a corner. The average American may not know the fine print of every study of televised violence and its impact, but citizens are largely in accord that TV has gotten more violent in recent years and that it affects the behavior of children, in particular, in ways damaging to society. Virtually everything the entertainment industry has done to address such concerns has been prompted by the threat of government intervention if broadcasters didn't clean up their own act.

The debate has been complicated by fears of censorship, by network complaints that violence can't be defined to everybody's satisfaction and concern that some studies don't distinguish between Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff and a serial killer bludgeoning his victim. Industry apologists also delight in confusing the issue by equating the real-life violence of news reporting with fictional murder and mayhem. These are all smoke screens.

In fact, most studies define violence quite simply as the deliberate use of force by one individual against another. It includes murders, stabbings, fights, chases, explosions, shootings, suicides, property damage, poisoning, drugging and threats of violence. There's no question TV has plenty of all the above. A survey last year showed that Fox Television, for example, had 352 acts of violence in its prime-time programs. It was followed by ABC with 224, NBC with 187 and CBS with 117. Fox's "Adventures of Brisco County, Jr," a one-hour Western, had 117 violent acts packed in between commercials. The cartoons "X-Men" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" were even more violent, with 129 and 123 acts of violence per hour, respectively.

In Maryland, legislation calling for the creation of a commission on television, and a statewide system to warn viewers of violent TV programs, has been introduced in the General Assembly. Taming TV violence does not, and ought not, require the heavy hand of government censorship. But it may need the kind of shot across the bow that will get the industry's attention.

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