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.”