Critics Zero In on TV Violence

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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

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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."

At the same time, Mr. Valenti told the Schroder/Variety symposium: "I am an implacable foe of censorship by any group, self-appointed or elected or otherwise. We must not tell creative people how to tell their stories."

The creative process, Valenti pointed out, "is so fragile, so easily shattered. I would try to direct a creative person to soften a violent scene and still get the same kind of impact." Public awareness

Senator Simon, unlike others who favor a stronger approach - "if self-regulation doesn't work, let's legislate" - would prefer television cleaned its own house. "I don't want to get into the delicate First Amendment area," he says. "Ideally, we can solve the problem without the heavy hand of government, without setting a precedent which we may regret later."

The American public is sharply aware of the negative influence of violence on television. A recent Times Mirror survey found that 72 percent of Americans surveyed said there was too much of it on entertainment programs; an equal percentage of parents reported turning off the set to protect their children from it.

Television executives, preferring not to be quoted by name, acknowledge that violence exists in TV drama programming because of the perception that it attracts viewers.

They are somewhat pessimistic at the prospects for a serious diminution of on-screen violence precisely because of the commercial aspects of it at a time when the networks are having trouble financially. "The networks will just pay the necessary lip service," observed one.

Senator Simon sees an inconsistency in the public's attitude when it comes to violence on TV. "It's the same inconsistency I face in the Senate," he says. "The public wants lower taxes, but more services and the elimination of the deficit. The same thing with violence: The public objects to it, and yet it is somehow fascinated by it."

James Quello, the temporary chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has warned that an aroused viewing public might ask Congress to legislate against excessive violence. Outspoken Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia has indicated that it could eventually be considered a violation of the public trust on the part of the networks.

It is precisely this threat of censorship that worries men like Valenti and others who look back on Hollywood's long and fierce struggle against it. The networks don't deny that they have the legal means to do something about the abundance of violence on the air. They can act under Senator Simon's TV Violence Act, exempting them from antitrust limits and allowing them to establish common rules. The law runs out in December 1993. US-overseas differences

Katherine Malatesta, who sells Westinghouse's famous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, underscores the difference between the United States and the rest of the world.

"At home, we don't get many objections to violence in our shows," she says. "American kids are used to it. But abroad, it's a very different story. The BBC in Britain wouldn't buy the Turtles unless they could edit out some of the violence.

"It's that version that we sold to the rest of the world. Otherwise the Turtles wouldn't have done nearly as well."

Americans frequently edit programs for export to accommodate the international distaste for violence. "Over there they hate it, but are quite willing to accept sex on TV. We are the exact opposite," observes Brian Lacy, who markets the Zodiac company's animated series.

While there are objections to violence in entertainment shows, it occurs more often in the so-called "reality" programs that offer news footage or skillful, realistic recreations.

"TV news portrays violence but does not glamorize it," Simon says, "but entertainment shows do just that. That is where the problem is, and that is the pattern we must move away from."

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