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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A character on a TV show aimed at teenagers is shown being tied up and skinned alive, and his remains incinerated.

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.

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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.

"Media violence is ... not real violence. Sometimes when people see that ... they can project themselves as good guys, and whoever they don't approve of or dislike as the bad guys. [TV] can serve as a venue for venting out their frustrations." In addition, the Federal Communications Commission and the networks' own censors seem no longer to provide restraints.

"Over the years, the [Fox] network got more and more lax about what they would allow on 'X-Files,' " says Frank Spotnitz, a producer for the hit sci-fi series and the coming CBS drama "Robbery Homicide Division." "Things you would have argued about for two hours in Season 2, there wasn't even a memo about in Season 9."

"Network television has changed," he says. "It's not about 'we want to show this, and the network won't let us.' ... The networks are more liberal about what they will let [producers] get away with."

Carol Mendelsohn, an executive producer of the new crime drama "CSI: Miami," agrees. "We push the envelope on 'CSI,' " she says. "We've never been held back by the network. But because it's about death, because its about forensics, because it's about murder, we have a lot of license."

Rather than only blaming the TV networks, some observers see larger issues at play. As long as society, including government, chooses violence to solve problems, TV shows will mimic that, argues the Rev. James Wall, a senior contributing editor of The Christian Century magazine, who writes about movies and TV from a religious and ethical perspective.

Violence in response to violence is "the way our government is moving [right now]," he says. "And so television takes the cue, and culture takes the cue...."

The basic problem of violence on television, he says, is that it "desensitizes us to the effects of violence and to the total inability of violence to solve our problems."

• M.S. Mason contributed to this report.

Teaching kids to filter out gory TV

While the effects of graphic violence in entertainment TV on adults can be debated, the deleterious effects on children have been proven in numerous studies. Earlier this month, a study by the National Institute on Media and the Family concluded that children who watch violent TV are ruder and meaner than those who don't.

"What we found is that the kids who teachers and peers rated as the meanest were the ones who watched the most violent media," says David Walsh, founder and president of the institute.

"Children don't have real-life experience to check their media experiences against," says Jamsheed Akrami, associate professor of communications and mass media at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. "That's why we don't see too many adults flying out the window to imitate Spider-Man or Superman. But sometimes you've seen children do that."

With no letup in gory TV fare in sight, the results of a federally funded program at Oregon State University in Corvalis, released last week, offer some hope.

Results suggest children can learn to identify violence on TV and develop "TV literacy," becoming critical viewers.

Children learn to notice such things as when characters have been violent and are not being punished. Or when an animated character is shoved off a 20-story building and gets right back up with no ill effects.

"When you point that out to children, the light goes on and then they begin to critique TV events themselves," says Sharon Rosenkoetter, one of the principal investigators in the program, called "Project REViEW – Reducing Early Violence: Education Works."

After a year, third- and fourth-grade students who participated in the program were found to be watching fewer violent TV shows compared with a control group and with their own previous viewing habits.

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