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Critics Zero In on TV Violence

By Fred HiftSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 1993


TELEVISION violence - the gratuitous, graphically ugly, often sadistic kind - is under attack, and TV broadcasters are paying close and even anxious attention.

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A meeting of top executives in the movie, broadcast-TV, and cable industries is planned for August in Los Angeles to examine the issue and the steps that might be taken to at least partially resolve it.

Last December, seeking to defuse the avalanche of criticism, the networks agreed on a number of vaguely worded standards aiming to cut down on violence and on scenes that "depict violence as glamorous." Self-regulation urged

The Hollywood conference has been called at the instigation of Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, who has been in the forefront of those pointing to the growing incidence of violence on the small screen (and the big one, for that matter) and urging the broadcasters to find some means of regulating themselves when it comes to the production of violent incidents in drama.

"I have hopes, not expectations for that meeting," Senator Simon told the Monitor, "My hope is that there will be a general consensus that we really do have a problem that we have to deal with in a responsible way.

"I hope that this conference will create a general atmosphere that recognizes, on the part of all the people who have such influence on the public, that there is a responsibility to move away from the pattern of violence that we have."

There are top people in the television business who are sharply aware not only of the prevalence of violence and the growing objections to it, but also of the impact it has on viewers, particularly young ones. Unbridled violence has become an integral part not only of action drama, but also of the cartoon fare for the very young.

Children's shows are frequently interrupted by commercials featuring violence and brutality in trailers for forth- coming adult action movies.

"There is a cynicism in this society, and it is hard to believe that we may not have had some role in it," said Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, at a recent industry conference called by Wertheim Schroder and Variety, the trade publication.

"At CBS, we are going to become much tougher on violence in our lineup this fall," he said. "It is the chill of violence that worries me, not so much the physical action. It is the callousness involved and the role we have in shaping the attitudes of young people to their victims. Gratuitous violence has to be erased from the network. We must admit our responsibility."

It is the impact on the young that particularly concerns many of those who have watched the rise in the level of violence on TV. They perceive it as harmful not only because it is seen stimulating and encouraging aggressive acts, but also because the steady drumbeat of on-air violence threatens to desensitize youngsters to the pain of those on whom it is inflicted, and it diminishes their sense of reality and responsibility.

A survey run in Washington last year by TV Guide on 10 local stations found no fewer than 100 violent scenes per hour. One-third of the violence involved life-threatening assaults. During an 18-hour span, the survey noted 1,846 individual acts of violence.

The American Psychological Association estimates that the average youngster will see 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of brutality by the time he or she finishes elementary school. The association finds a definite correlation between TV violence and aggressive behavior.

However, the practical success of the August conference clearly is not a foregone conclusion. Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the major Hollywood studios (who supply the vast majority of our television programs), sees a "political problem," but expresses the hope that the movie industry can tackle violence "as we did earlier in the case of drugs and alcohol on the screen."