AFTER 30 years of effort, Congress may finally get some of the murder and mayhem off the television airwaves this fall.
Top entertainment officials are under mounting pressure from lawmakers and the public to rid both TV and movies of excessive violence. Alarmed by the criminally violent behavior of many young Americans, Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois has led a chorus of congressmen who are demanding that Hollywood and the TV networks excise the guns and gore.
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, supports the Simon efforts to reduce violence. But he says: "Long before there was an electronic box in millions of American homes, there was violence.... I refuse to believe all the cruelties visited upon this society are caused by television."
Senator Simon counters: "I'm not suggesting television is the cause of violence in our society. But it is a cause." He says scientific research proves a direct link between criminal behavior and screen violence. "We know that to be a fact," he says.
The statistics of TV violence are familiar to most Americans. If a child watches two-to-four hours of commercial TV a day, the child would see 8,000 TV murders and 100,000 other violent acts by the age of 12.
Movies are even bloodier. "Die Hard 2" depicted 264 violent deaths, according to figures supplied by Leonard Eron, a research psychologist at the University of Michigan. "Robocop" had 81. "Total Recall" had 74.
Dr. Eron, who testified this week before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Simon, said widespread violence in television and movies is a "public health problem" and an "epidemic." Congress looks to Hollywood
Congress wants Hollywood to change its act. To facilitate industry efforts to reduce violence, Congress passed the "Television Improvement Act of 1990." The act sets aside portions of the antitrust laws for three years to permit the establishment of industrywide standards to reduce violence in entertainment. With the law's December 1993 deadline fast approaching, entertainment officials will gather Aug. 2 in Los Angeles to look for answers. Mr. Valenti, Hollywood's top lobbyist in Washington, promises th at his colleagues will "rise to the challenge."
Some members of Congress are running out of patience, however. Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, a member of the House Judicary Committee, says that the just-completed May "sweeps" month, when networks and local stations compete for high ratings, was a "carnival of murder and mayhem on our airwaves."
Cable is even worse, Representative Schumer says. He charges that the "proliferation of gore and sleaze" shown on cable are driving networks to more violent programs of their own.
Schumer urges three quick steps:
* He calls for a separate ratings system to reveal the violence content of both films and television shows. The ratings would help parents monitor what their children watch.
* He wants the Advertising Council to fashion an antiviolence campaign, much like the antismoking campaign, to raise public awareness about what he calls a "crisis."
* He has crafted legislation to create a presidential commission to study the problem and present solutions.
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who characterizes the recent May rating period as "murder month," sees another problem troubling many parents - promotional ads for violent programs.
Even on family-oriented broadcasts, such as sports and comedy, networks often telecast promotions that depict the worst kinds of violence, including murder and terrorism.
Senator Levin says: "A parent can prevent a child from watching a TV show which is known to be violent. However, when a violent or offensive commercial is tucked into an otherwise ... family-oriented show, there is no prior warning...." Tough task for rulemakers
Yet curbing violence can be controversial. For example, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) reports that violence has increased sharply since 1980, when the most action-packed show ("Enos") averaged 22 incidents per hour. By 1992, NCTV reports nine shows had 24 or more violent incidents per hour. The worst show had 60.
And what was the worst show? "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," a program that won critical raves from educators and reviewers for depicting historic events and major figures, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Sigmund Freud.
Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Television Group, which jointly produces the show with George Lucas, said he was "stunned" by the rating. One person's "violence," it seems, is another person's "educational television." Which indicates why would-be rule-makers still have a tough job ahead.