The Brutal Truth About TV Violence

Sex on television has long raised hackles, while graphic violence goes unchecked and unregulated. In the wake of Newtown, it may finally be a force to be reckoned with

Why This Matters

In D.C., Keeping an Eye on Media Violence

There was plenty of activity in Washington last week on the issue of violence and the media following the Newtown tragedy:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a veteran critic of violence in media, fast-tracked a bill that would mandate a study of the impact of media violence on children. The National Association of Broadcasters said it was willing to work with Congress on the study. Meanwhile, the video game lobby said research has shown there is no connection between violent entertainment and violence in real life.

• The Hollywood-backed Entertainment Industries Council said it will relaunch an initiative to use TV and the movies to spotlight the consequences of gun violence.

• White House press secretary Jay Carney suggested that violence in entertainment could be part of the conversation post-Newtown.

• MPAA chairman Chris Dodd said in a statement, “Those of us in the motion picture and television industry…stand ready to be part of the national conversation.”

—John Eggerton

An FBI agent hears a woman’s terrified
screams as he picks his way through
a dark, abandoned building, desperately
trying to find her. When he does, it’s far
too late—her bloodied corpse is hanging upside
down, tied by the feet, with her eyes gouged out
and lank blond hair brushing the floor.

A bus filled with schoolchildren is taken over
by two brothers, who force the kids to play a
video game that the brothers have brought to
life. The winner will be the kid who manages to
avoid being shot by his or her peers.

These scary scenarios—horrifying to think
about at this most sensitive moment—are fresh
out of two broadcast TV dramas: Fox’s upcoming
The Following, which premieres Jan. 21, and
CBS’ Criminal Minds, in an episode that aired
Nov. 21. With the tragic shooting scenes from
Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.,
fresh in everyone’s minds, questions are again
arising about whether kids are growing up with
media images that are too violent.

Advocates of kinder, gentler TV programming
often protest broadcast programs such as NBC’s
The Playboy Club (which KSL Salt Lake City refused
to air last year) and NBC’s The New Normal,
the story of a gay couple, their single-mom surrogate
and her old-soul daughter who have come
together as a modern family. Meanwhile, violent
TV fare is at least as predominant as sexual content,
but far less noise is made about it. Why?

The answer is simple: Washington does not
regulate violence. The FCC has indecency regulations
governing sex, nudity and foul language.
So when Janet Jackson’s nipple slips during the
Super Bowl halftime show, or Samuel L. Jackson
drops an f-bomb on SNL, TV stations face
the government’s wrath, and worse, its attendant
huge fines. But when bloodied corpses are
shown on an almost nightly basis, no one says
much because there’s nothing Washington can
do about it, as per current media rules of law.

“There is no regulation on violence,
and no measuring influence except for
the broadcasting standards’ conscience
and what they allow,” says one former
network TV executive. “[And those
choices are] affected greatly by the pressure
coming from creators who want to
be known [for] pushing the envelope.”

Says another broadcast executive,
who declined to be named because of
the sensitivity of the subject in the current
environment: “There’s still a lot of
tension between content creators and the
standards people, but that’s healthy.”

Executives at CBS, NBC, Fox, AMC
and FX all declined to comment for
this story. Representatives for ABC
could not be reached by presstime.

With no regulations, the networks,
therefore, face no financial hit if they
air violent programs, other than perhaps advertisers
choosing not to participate, while their
owned and affiliated stations are very likely to be
charged fines for violations of indecency rules.

On the flip side, broadcast networks feel they
are losing viewers—and thus money—if they
can’t compete with the cable networks. Shows
such as HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire introduced
the idea that ultra-violent TV shows could
also be critically acclaimed. And the smashing
success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which so
far is this season’s highest-rated entertainment
program on TV among the key adults 18-49 demographic,
as well as FX’s American Horror Story,
make broadcast networks sit up and take notice.

Many of CBS’ and NBC’s popular crime procedurals
have long showed the graphic results
of violence, setting up scary situations punctuated
by horrific crime scenes. And the fallout
is that kids of various ages continue to be exposed to disturbing, haunting images. The
Walking Dead
’s midseason finale, which aired
Dec. 2, ranked No. 1 on cable that night in
the 12-17 demo, earning a 4.6 rating; it also
topped the 12-34 demo with a 5.2.

“It’s all driven by competition,” says the former
network exec. “[Violent programs] are
not viewed as negative, from a public relations
point of view, because they already air
on pay channels. The basic cable networks
try to compete with premium, and then the
broadcast networks try to compete with basic
because they are losing viewers to cable.”

Buyers Beware

That said, just because a show is popular with
viewers doesn’t necessarily mean it’s popular
with advertisers, says one senior media buyer.

“I don’t think any advertiser in the world sets
out to say, ‘Gee, I want to be in a violent show,’”
the buyer says. “Many advertisers say, ‘I really
want to be in sports, or I want to be in comedic
programming because I have a funny ad.’ I’ve
never heard an advertiser say, ‘I want to be in a
violent show’ because of some connection with
what the company is trying to do.”

In fact, adds the buyer, many advertisers
maintain a list of “restricted” shows in which
they avoid airing commercials. Advertisers’ take
on Fox’s upcoming The Following is so far unclear,
but the buyer says he and others will be keeping a close eye on that show’s content. (And
in a nod to current events, Fox has made changes
to its marketing campaign for The Following.)

“I think [buyers] thought [The Following] was
a high-quality show and so the ratings will follow,”
the senior buyer says. “I don’t know that
that show made a lot of restricted lists. It probably
got an asterisk that means, ‘We’ll take some
units, but you better make sure you look at the
screening reports.’”

Meanwhile, Washington does seem to be
turning its attention back toward violence in
the media. The National Association of Broadcasters
signaled last week that it was ready to
work with Congress and the Administration on
a study of the impact of violent video games
and programming on kids. Up to now, the focus
has been on single-person shooter video games,
such as the hugely popular and highly realistic
Call of Duty. The game has sold more than 100
million copies. On Nov. 15, Activision released
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which set a record with
sales of $500 million in its first 24 hours.

Last week, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)
fast-tracked a bill that would direct the National
Academy of Sciences to report to Congress, the
FCC and Federal Trade Commission on the impact
of violent video on kids’ development and
well-being. Rockefeller long has taken aim at violent
media, including TV. The study—should the
bill pass—is expected to look closely at games. A
bill that would have given the FCC the power to
regulate violence has stalled in the past.

Either way, the story won’t end there. A Hill
source speaking on background says Rockefeller’s
bill is just a first step on the violence
front. Passage of the bill in this Congress is
a long shot, but Rockefeller expects the next
Congress will approve the study. It would be
a beginning, at least, in what may be a series
of violence-related actions and considerations.

Still, activists who are focused on children
and the media seem to think that violent TV is
here to stay, mainly because there’s very little
incentive for networks to change their ways at
this point. Advocates know the First Amendment
prevents censorship of programming; in
the wake of tragedy, they are asking networks
to consider their choices carefully.

“The issue isn’t whether we the media are to
blame for this violence,” says Vicki Rideout, a
consultant who advises companies on how to
use media to positively reach out to children.
“The issue is whether media companies can
do better by our young people via the media
they market to them.”