THE television industry is finally getting a little worried about its causal connection to the violence plaguing our society - or at least about public perception concerning that link. But, typically, what the medium may do about it is anyone's guess.
Pressure from many sides has made it impossible for networks and stations to get away with the usual disclaimers coupled with declarations of good intentions. On Monday, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed E. Hundt, gave broadcasters the closest thing to a meaningful warning that the FCC seems capable of. In a Miami speech before the National Association of Television Program Executives, he challenged what he called the broadcasters' ``capability for creative and caring action.''
If that sounds like another comfortable call to self-regulation, he went on to say, ``I do not think we should deny that TV violence hurts our children. The overwhelming majority of Americans already believe TV violence is a serious problem.... Any business makes a big mistake when it ignores the views of its customers.'' If laws are passed to curb TV violence, he continued, and the FCC is authorized to enforce them, ``we will do whatever we can to win those lawsuits for the government.''
The same day, from Vatican City, the Pope issued a written message pointing to the harm done by ``broadcasting pornography and graphic depictions of brutal violence,'' and suggesting the ultimate weapon: that parents might just need to turn off the TV set sometimes to fulfill their responsibility. He also urged the industry to adopt a code of ethics. (Guess which tactic would have the greater effect.) Other rumblings have sounded from watchdog groups and from people not given to protests.
The response from TV has been a display of soul-searching about violent content that is probably unprecedented. This week, with great fanfare, NBC has keyed its network news shows to the theme ``America the Violent: Fed Up and Fighting Back,'' a look not only at violence itself but also at what the media has to do with it. ``NBC Nightly News,'' ``Now,'' ``Dateline NBC,'' ``Today,'' and other highly visible shows have been enlisted.
This evening, for instance, ``Nightly News'' solicits reactions from Texas convicts to the idea of barring parole for those convicted of violent crime. (Isn't that like asking networks how they feel about outside regulation of violent shows to prevent broadcasters' relapsing into their old programming habits?)
CBS has switched a show called ``Kids Killing Kids,'' originally planned as an afternoon ``Schoolbreak Special,'' to prime time, with an as-yet-undetermined air date. The program presents typical problems facing kids, then two solutions: one violent, one nonviolent. It will be carried on both CBS and Fox, a rare tie-in. Fox also has dealt with violence in some of its recent regular shows - like ``Roc'' and ``Beverly Hills, 90210.'' ABC has run recent news shows on the subject.
The major cable channels, according to a report last week, eventually will use a content-rating system and allow an outside monitor to oversee the violence in their shows.
Even PBS, not a notable offender as far as gratuitous violence is concerned, has jumped into the reform movement. Noting that 19 million American preschoolers watch some 15 billion hours of TV a year, it announced plans to air nine hours of children's shows in July called ``The Ready to Learn Service.'' Designed to prepare kids for kindergarten, the programs can be used to help adults interact with kids to help antidote the wrong messages absorbed from TV.
It all sounds great, but haven't I seen this performance before - a rush of corrective measures when the political pressure grows too great, followed by a relapse? It may require more than periodic brow-beating of broadcasters by politicians, coupled with demands for self-regulation. Something may actually have to be done about it this time - a meaningful warning system, stricter rules about children's viewing hours, or some other measure that doesn't actually dictate content but does control its exposure.
This won't do the trick, of course. No matter how carefully violence is controlled on broadcast TV, there are still independent and cable stations where program standards sometimes seem conspicuous for their absence. But now that society has gotten broadcasters' attention about violence, let's take the first real step.