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TV violence tough to curb despite FCC's new plea

Defining violence narrowly enough to satisfy the courts is a tricky challenge for Congress.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2007


The graphic torture and death scenes on "24," "CSI," and other popular shows may soon come under government fire.

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The Federal Communications Commission, which released its long-awaited recommendations on TV violence last week, is strongly urging that Congress can and should regulate the degree of violence that can be shown during prime-time hours. The FCC has also proposed to regulate cable TV for the first time, attempting to reduce the market for violent images by requiring cable companies to offer consumers more flexibility in which channels they choose to purchase.

While such regulation may prove politically popular, it will be a tough sell to the courts, experts say.

"There is very little chance that a bill attempting to define violence and regulate it would ever pass constitutional muster," says Clay Calvert, codirector of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University. "It would be a huge shift for [the FCC] to regulate content on cable and satellite, and this is probably not the best issue to do it on…. Violence is going to be even harder to define than indecency."

Despite that, many advocates say that evidence of harmful effects of media violence on children, combined with a significant increase in the degree of violence that makes it over the air waves, means that the government needs to try.

Sen. John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia commended the report and said he'll introduce legislation within the next few weeks that may incorporate some of the FCC's suggestions. Other parent advocates acknowledge that such laws can be incredibly difficult to enforce but say that a discussion about the issue is vital.

"We're not talking about car chases and shoot'em-up scenes, we're talking about graphic depictions of rape and torture," says Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the Parents Television Council (PTC). A recent PTC study showed that there had been a 75 percent increase in violence on prime-time network programming since 1998, he notes.

"The best solution here is meaningful industry self-regulation," he adds. "If they don't do that, then what other recourse do the American people have?"

Critics of government intervention say that parents, in fact, have quite a few resources – including blocking channels, blocking certain programs by using V-chip technology, or simply monitoring their children's TV-watching more closely.

"There are good shows and bad shows. The problem is when you say the solution to that is having the government make decisions about what shows are right and what shows are wrong," says Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, a coalition based in Charleston, S.C., that opposes government regulation. "I don't know how they'd do it."

Even for the one-third of American households with children, notes Mr. Dyke, decisions about what shows to watch may vary significantly based on the age of the child and the judgment of the parent.