The FCC is readying a report that could set the agenda for an effort to crack down on TV gore similar to the push to curb indecency.
While regulators have been obsessing over flashes of skin and course language, TV violence, or at least the repercussions of that violence, have gotten more graphic, powered by the success of gritty police procedurals like Law & Order and CSI.
Now, several FCC sources confirm that the Media Bureau has circulated a Media Bureau TV violence report among the commissioners for their comment.
Media violence is an issue that surfaces periodically in Washington, from the hearings of Estes Kefauver in the 1950s (a Democrat) to efforts by Janet Reno (Democratic appointee) and Senator Paul Simon (Democrat) in the early 1990s that led, ultimately, to the adoption of the V-chip.
Meanwhile, Tim Winter, the new head of the Parents Television Council, the group that helped change the indecency-regulation equation, has said he plans to make TV violence his priority.
Frequent media violence critic Senator Jay Rockefeller (Democrat, W.Va.) isn’t waiting for the report, or for the courts.
"Obviously, the preference would be to have the industry police itself when it comes to excessive violence,” he told B&C. “However, if they can't or won't do it, then Congress must step in and address this growing societal problem. One of the most basic steps we can take is to give the FCC authority to regulate violence, and if necessary, the courts will then work out the constitutional issues on a case by case basis. Just sitting on our hands and doing nothing to protect children is not an option."
A source confirms that Rockefeller will re-introduce a bill giving the FCC the authority to regulate violence as it does indecency. He also expects the committee to hold hearings on TV violence, the source said.
The FCC report is the product of a more than two-year-old inquiry prompted by, among others, the now-chairs of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and Telecommunications subcommittee.
Among the issues the report addresses are the negative effects on kids caused by cumulative viewing, the limits on the FCC’s power to regulate violence, and what the definition of “harmful” TV violence is. The report is said to suggest there are constitutional hurdles to regulating violence, but not insurmountable ones if Congress wants to give the FCC the power, and Rockefeller want to do just that.
The timing of the report is likely no coincidence. The Senate Commerce Committee has called an FCC oversight hearing for Feb. 1—and the House will probably follow suit. Martin may be looking to get the report out by then, or at least be able to say he has circulated it to the commissioners for their approval. “It’s probably safe to assume that the timing is not unrelated to all of us appearing before Congress Feb. 1,” said an FCC staffer.
The TV violence issue has been heating up of late, with new Parents Television Council President Tim Winter making one of his first official acts the touting two weeks ago of PTC’s own report, tellingly titled “Dying to Entertain,” which found that TV violence had increased by 75% since a similar 1998 study—though it did not take context into account—and calling on the industry to start reining in the “alarmingly more frequent and more disturbing” content.
While PTC’s report only looked at violent broadcast prime time programming, Winter says he is also concerned about the syndication of violent shows like Law & Order or CSI in the afternoons, and of the move to basic cable of the the off-HBO Sopranos, which debuted last week to super ratings.
Winter, a former TV executive with MGM and NBC, who took over the reigns from former President Brent Bozell Jan. 1, told B&C that, without taking anything away from PTC’s indecency effort, “of all the issues PTC is involved with, violence is far and away my number one personal concern.”
It is also the concern of some in the creative community.While Law & Order creator Dick Wolf says "there is no violence on network TV that is objectionable and there hasn’t been for years,” others aren't so sure."I feel like we self-regulated it once we started to see that [Heroes] is a show that people are watching with their families," says Tim Kring, the creator of the hit NBC series.
“We agree that there is a problem,” says Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, whose membership includes NYPD Blue’s Steven Bochco and America’s Funniest Home Videos’ Vin Di Bona.
Rintels says the violence has gotten “a little more graphic, a little more bloody” but that the industry is just catching up with other media, like the films and videogames, and all are chasing a generation raised on that diet. “We think the solution is technology and education, not government censorship. If the V-chip isn’t working, fix it. If the ratings aren’t working, fix them. If people aren’t educated, educate them.”