Battle over Violence

Critics rage, but FCC gets few complaints from citizens

Apparently TV violence isn't a killer issue after all.

Despite lawmakers' repeated calls to end prime time shootings, beatings and other make-believe mayhem, an FCC inquiry into the need for restrictions on TV violence is generating little enthusiasm from everyday citizens.

Through last week, the FCC had received fewer than 170 requests from parents to restrict TV violence. The agency had asked for public input by Oct. 15 to help it prepare a report that must be submitted to Congress by Jan. 1, and had been hoping to get some advice from parents, children's advocates and media lawyers on how to protect kids from the possibly harmful effects of onscreen bedlam. Instead, only a few adamant TV critics bothered to file comments in support of the idea.

The apparent public indifference to the FCC study doesn't mean broadcasters can rest easy. A nation of TV viewers can turn on their moral outrage in an instant, as they did after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl breast-flash.

"Broadcasters are safe until one of them airs a Quentin Tarantino movie uncut," says Blair Levin of Legg Mason.

But the silence may come as a shock to Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who has made fighting TV violence a cornerstone of his political career. "It is not harmless entertainment," Lieberman complained earlier this year when he introduced legislation that would require the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of TV violence and other media exposure on children's development.

Lieberman's intent is clear. Data showing any link between exposure to violent shows and aggressive behavior in children will help him push anti-violence restrictions through Congress. One of the most likely proposals would create a "safe harbor" for kids that would relegate violent shows to late-night time slots, when children are less likely to be watching.

Joining his fight is an incongruous mix of conservatives and liberals, including Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat. The politicians are incensed by the proliferation of violent shows and increasingly graphic scenes, such as one from a CSI
episode last season that depicted a man slitting a woman's throat in a snuff film.

According to the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group, the number of violent incidents depicted during the 8 p.m.-10 p.m. time slot increased 41% from the 1998 season to the 2002 season. Violence during the 9 p.m.-10 p.m. slot rose 134%, the group said.

A coalition of children's advocacy groups and mental health professionals has demanded better ratings for TV programs but has stopped far short of supporting new restrictions on prime time programming. Among activist groups, only Morality in Media has called for outright restrictions on violent shows.

Another big organized backer of restrictions, surprisingly, was a broadcaster. Pappas Telecasting, which operates 21 stations in 16 midsize and small markets, wants the FCC not only to create a violence-free safe harbor but is asking the FCC to empower affiliates with the right to preview and preempt network programming that local owners believe would offend their communities.

But Pappas is the industry oddball on this issue. The rest of the industry, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters, adamantly opposes any restrictions on violence, a big driver of TV ratings and profits. In fact the NAB twice told the FCC of its opposition to new restrictions—first in its own 50-page attack on the idea and again in an inter-industry filing prepared with cable and satellite operators, movie studios and the advertising agencies.

Any crackdown on violent programming would violate well-established court protections, the NAB and its allies say. Moreover, clear restrictions would be impossible to enforce, media companies argue, because every definition of violence is different. Would the definition extend to sports, animal violence on nature shows, or forensic scenes?

Proof of the harmful effects of violent programming on children is sketchy at best, says Media Coalition, an industry umbrella group, which points out that despite the existence of more than 250 studies on the topic, the majority fail to find connections between watching violent programs and aggressive behavior.

Wrote attorney Robert Corn-Revere on behalf of the group: "The justifications for regulation are greatly exaggerated."