TV's higher threshold of pain
The number of torture scenes on the networks last season grew at a rate almost double the previous two seasons.
A character on a TV show aimed at teenagers is shown being tied up and skinned alive, and his remains incinerated.Skip to next paragraph
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In a spy drama, a woman has her teeth pulled out as a means of torture.
In another TV drama, a captive, who can breathe only through straws in her nose, is chained, beaten, and finally suffocated.
So much for media critics' expectations that grisly fictional violence on TV would abate after the sobering events of Sept. 11. Instead, scenes of torture and sadism appeared on network entertainment TV at a rate nearly double that over the previous two years. In a count requested by The Christian Science Monitor, The Parents Television Council (PTC), a TV watchdog group, logged 70 instances of scenes of graphic torture or sadism on network entertainment TV from Sept. 1, 2001, until earlier this month. In the two-year period previous to this, it logged 79.
The jump "did surprise me a little bit," says Melissa Caldwell, PTC's director of research and publications.
As Americans prepare to mark the real-life tragedies of Sept. 11, TV networks are planning a half-dozen or more new crime shows that very probably will yield more scenes of disturbing violence like those mentioned above, which aired on the network shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Alias," and the No. 1-rated "CSI."
Yet in a time when news programs report almost daily on real-life Middle East suicide bombings and child kidnappings at home, the rising flow of entertainment TV violence seems to be under the radar even of those who consider themselves media watchdogs.
"My reading of the public right now ... is that it is more alarmed about some of the 'cutting-edge sexuality' [on TV] than about the violence," says Michael Medved, a media critic and radio talk-show host.
"The most violent programming on TV in the past year has certainly been news programming," he says, citing the frequent suicide bombings in the Middle East. "When you're talking about sadism and torture, it would be very difficult for entertainment television to keep pace with the news division."
Yet it appears to be trying. Shows like "Alias" and "The Agency" (see chart) show torture as frequent elements in their plotlines.
Like the proverbial frog in a pot of warming water, the US public is little by little being presented with the kind of stomach-turning subject matter that in the past has been reserved for R-rated movies. The difference, especially in the case of the broadcast networks, is that TV reaches far deeper into homes, including those with impressionable children. (See sidebar.)
Raw numbers of instances of torture, though they provide straws in the wind, can't tell the whole story, of course. Scenes of cruelty have appeared since the TV's birth. Sometimes they illustrate powerful and important stories the depiction of the suffering of Jesus in numerous biblical films, for example, or the whipping of slaves in the 1970s miniseries "Roots." And it's also clear that most adults are able to separate the unrealistic violence of fantasy, science-fiction, comedy, and cartoon shows from violent scenes in dramas that seem disturbingly "real" (though small children who may be watching often can't make this distinction).
Theories explaining why today's televised gore-fest are many. One heard often is that networks are under ratings pressure from cable channels such as HBO, whose "Sopranos" and "Oz" have been praised by critics for their strong writing and acting but are also marked by frequent and graphic violence.
Another is that audiences seek out fictional violence to help them deal with the real-life kind.
"Violence, as odd as it sounds, can have a sort of cathartic effect on people. When they are exposed to violence there is something of a vicarious element ... [of] participation that could have a soothing effect on them," says Jamsheed Akrami, communications professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.