In the opening scene of a recent
CSI, the top-rated drama on television, a film developer shows investigators footage of a couple in the last moments of sex.
Finished, the man onscreen stands and pulls the woman off the bed by her wrist. As she struggles, he puts a knife to her neck and cuts across her throat. Blood spews from her severed artery, and drops of blood slowly slide down the camera lens.
Such graphic brutality on prime time network TV is becoming a nightly ritual. Other broadcast-network shows, particularly in the crime genre, depict beatings, point-blank shootings, and rapes just as realistically as graphic cable hits FX's The Shield and HBO's The Sopranos.
Writers and producers say violence, in context, is a necessary element of storytelling. But the carnage is fueling a backlash in Washington that could soon rival the outrage over indecency—especially in an election year. Networks, producers, cable operators, and TV stations are under mounting pressure to scrub shows of the full-screen gore
that has become the hallmark of some of TV's most successful programming franchises.
Congress and the FCC are taking the first steps toward punishing stations that air "excessively" violent shows. Under orders from leaders of the House Commerce Committee, FCC Chairman Michael Powell by the end of the year will start investigating whether the commission should restrict onscreen violence. Cable can't count on immunity either. Growing ranks of lawmakers say cable must do more to make sure that children aren't exposed to potentially traumatizing content.
"It is not harmless entertainment," complains Sen. Joe Lieberman, a longtime critic of TV violence. To finally put a muzzle on it, the Connecticut Democrat is pushing legislation that would require the National Institutes of Health to study the impact of TV violence and other types of media exposure on children's development. His purpose is clear: Data showing any link between exposure to violent shows and aggressive behavior in children will be fuel to drive anti-violence restrictions through.
Moreover, in the Senate, anti-indecency legislation introduced this year now has extra provisions that would exile excessively violent programming to a 10 p.m.-6 a.m. time slot and resurrect broadcasters' family-viewing block. And regulators have made it easier for Congress to collect complaints about violent shows: The Federal Trade Commission has created a link on its Web site specifically for complaints on TV violence.
There's little doubt that programmers are pushing the limits of appropriate viewing. On The Shield
last month, Capt. David Aceveda was forced at gunpoint to perform oral sex on a gang member. In the Sept. 23, 2003, CBS Cold Case
episode, a teenage girl is beaten to death with a tennis racket. The sounds of the blows to her body are heard as the camera focuses on a witness's face. In the April 15, 2003, episode of 24,
kidnappers gag Agent Bauer and suspend him from a ceiling. His torso is sliced repeatedly by a scalpel and a hot soldering iron inserted into one of the wounds.
While the debate rages about which violent scenes go too far, everyone seems to agree that there are more of them on TV. In a report last year, the conservative watchdog group Parents Television Council said depictions of violent incidents during the 8-10 p.m. time slot increased 41% from the 1998 season to the 2002 season. Violence in the 9-10 p.m. hour rose 134%.
The hardcore violence hasn't hurt ratings; the most graphic shows are among the top performers. CSI, for instance, a CBS hit, regularly ranks among the top five in weekly ratings. Alias, another violent show, is a strong performer for ABC. As ratings for these shows grow, Washington promises to step in if programmers don't restrain themselves more.
Any legislation on TV violence would set "a dangerous precedent for anybody in the arts of any kind, whether it's printed, visual film, or otherwise," says Kevin Beggs, president of Lions Gate Television, which produces cable dramas Lifetime's 1-800-Missing
and USA's Dead Zone.
Some power players in Washington disagree. Lieberman has patched together a diverse coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats to push his legislation. His bill would fund $90 million in NIH research over the next five years into the effects of TV violence and other media exposure on children's cognitive development. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who like Lieberman has made combating TV violence a longtime priority, recruited Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum as another GOP sponsor.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, another Democratic co-sponsor, was joined by Brownback at a Capitol Hill press conference May 19 to tout the bill. "As parents," she said, alongside one-time political rivals, "we know intuitively that our young children shouldn't be watching television shows with extreme violence or age-inappropriate content."
At the FCC, the TV-violence inquiry will focus on whether the government can limit violent programs without violating free-speech rights. If those constitutional issues can be resolved, then the FCC must decide how tough the limits should be.
The biggest quandary over regulating TV violence is actually defining what "excessive" violence is. Many gruesome acts occur off-camera, with viewers seeing very little blood. Some gore isn't really violence; forensic scenes from CSI, for instance, are simply gross. The most bracing scenes show no blood at all, such as when The Sopranos'
Christopher slugged girlfriend Adriana in the jaw after learning she was an FBI informant.
Many in TV's creative community argue that the Parents Television Council's definition of objectionable violence is far too broad: basically, any harm perpetrated by one person on another. To PTC, there's little difference between violence depicted onscreen, violence occurring off-camera, and violence described by police officers or during a trial. Even fistfights, a staple of filmed entertainment since silent movies, are harmful, PTC says, because kids are more likely to mimic fighting on the playground than gunplay.
During 2002, PTC tallied an average of 16 acts of violence during the broadcast networks' 8-9 p.m. time slot, the prime family-viewing period. Broken down, that's one onscreen death a week and another implied, six displays of guns and other weapons, five fights, 1.4 scenes of blood, 0.8 threats of violence, and 0.35 acts of torture.
While it's too early to tell how far legislators will push, regulators in Washington share their view. FCC Chairman Powell didn't hesitate to express disgust at TV violence when he informed House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) of the pending violence inquiry. "I share many of the committee's concerns related to the potential effects of violent video programming on children," he wrote in a letter to Barton.
In the Senate, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) persuaded Commerce Committee colleagues to tuck his plan banning violence before 10 p.m. into a pending anti-indecency bill. He also included a measure that would clear the way for the reinstatement of a nightly family-viewing period that carves out time for nonviolent, family-friendly fare.
Privately, Washington lobbyists are playing down chances of any crackdown passing Congress or the FCC soon. In public, however, they're scrambling to show that the issue is taken seriously. The National Association of Broadcasters, for instance, is mulling whether to resurrect the formal family hour, which was scrapped in the 1970s when producers complained it infringed on their creative freedom. Says President and CEO Eddie Fritts, "It is our strong belief that voluntary industry initiatives are far preferable to government regulation."
Programmers are already taking the scrutiny to heart. Producers of CBS's May 23 movie Helter Skelter
acknowledged that they edited scenes of the Manson clan's notorious murders with Washington regulators in mind. "If it looks to us like society as whole wants to see less," he told the Associated Press, "then we as providers have to provide less."
To the industry's harshest critics, the attention on violence is long overdue. Says Melissa Caldwell, research director for the Parents Television Council, "The connection between media violence and real violent behavior is well-documented."
Because so much of the data is inconclusive and sometimes contradictory, Lieberman calls it a "patchwork" of data. "We can do better than that," he says.