Old values won't cure new violence

February 25, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

THE BROADCAST industry, after years of resisting any attempt to regulate the content of television programs, is finally coming around to the idea of establishing its own ratings system. The question is, will the proposal, even if enacted, have any discernable effect on the effect on the problem of excessive violence on television and the harm it does both children and adults?

There's not much dispute that TV violence is a problem. A recent year-long study sponsored by the cable industry found that most programs on television contain violence that is "psychologically harmful." Watching violence on television, the report found, teaches people to behave violently, to gloss over the harmful consequences of violence and to become more fearful of being attacked.

None of this is really new. But it's easy to see why the networks all of a sudden are so concerned. There's growing pressure from Washington to limit children's exposure to TV violence through the use of blocking devices called V-chips. The new telecommunications act, which became law earlier this month, permits the Federal Communications Commission to set industry-wide standards if broadcasters can't come up with their own rating system.

Naturally, broadcasters prefer regulating themselves to having the government do it for them. But there's no reason to suppose that just because they accept some sort of voluntary rating system, similar to the one currently used by the motion picture industry, the problem of excessive violence will go away.

If you doubt that, just consider that Hollywood has been using a rating system for films for more than a generation. Yet during that time movies have, if anything, become even more graphic in their depictions of sex and violence.

Moreover, there is growing anecdotal evidence that the movie rating system, originally designed to protect minors from being exposed to graphic sex and violence, is widely ignored by theater owners, parents -- and kids.

At a recent area screening of "Waiting to Exhale" -- rated "PG-13," meaning children under 13 are not permitted without an adult -- it was apparent that any number of underage youngsters had gleefully managed to buy tickets virtually with no questions asked.

It is a commonplace that children should be shielded from images of deadly violence and casual sex because these are likely to lead to anti-social behavior. But the images -- and the attitudes that underlie them -- are so pervasive that the problem may lie beyond the power of a handful of media executives to solve. For example, Hollywood produces about 500 pictures a year -- about 1,000 hours of film -- and can't even make the relatively permissive standards it has stick. It's not very likely the broadcast industry can rate some 600,000 hours of TV programming and compel viewers to abide by a similar set of standards.

Whenever something goes wrong, we look for someone to blame. But the fault lies in our own contradictory impulses as much as the broadcast industry's profit-driven greed. We want to uphold the "family values" that characterized the agrarian economy of a century ago while living in the rapidly changing post-industrial urban society of today. That's like the broadcasters hoping to make millions off good, clean fun. It's foolish to believe we can have it both ways.

It's fashionable among today's conservatives to blame all our problems on the breakup of the two-parent family. Certainly the family is the institution that traditionally has been most directly concerned with the upbringing and education of young people. And there's no denying many American families are in crisis these days.

But the family is not the only institution in crisis. The church, the school, the criminal justice system, the news and the entertainment media -- all have experienced a loss of authority and public confidence relative to what they once enjoyed. It is that loss we really mean when we speak of the crisis in "moral values" that afflicts us.

The loss of "values" is in fact another way of describing the tremendous social and economic transformations that have characterized recent American history. We are no longer a nation of sturdy, self-reliant yeoman farmers living in close-knit rural communities. For a half-century or more, we have been primarily a nation of city dwellers whose modes of behavior and habits of thought have been shaped by the impersonal quality of urban life and the technical demands of large-scale industrial production.

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