The Bottom Line On TV Violence

I HAVE a question for the logicians among us - especially for the ones seeking that elusive "causal connection" between one thing and another.

Since some studies show that the average American spends a cumulative 10 years in front of the TV set, seeing countless acts of violence - shootings, explosions, fights, cars going off cliffs, and assorted mayhem - is it fair to conclude that viewers have been conditioned to consider these acts a normal part of life? And are they therefore more prone to violence - especially since TV violence often comes in the form of glamorous acts that trigger their adrenaline and suggest definitive solutions to almo st all problems?

The answer is not nearly as obvious as it seems. For many decades, in fact, the "educated" response was "no." In the late 1960s and in the '70s, I knew people who appeared on televised discussion panels pleading the cause of reduced media mayhem. All they were asking for was fewer gunshots and brawls per show. But they were virtually laughed off the panels - not by TV officials, but by psychologists and other academics who pointed, no doubt correctly, to an absence of statistical proof that the tube had anything to do with crime - juvenile or adult. (Never mind all those killings depicted. Can you prove they're having an effect?)

TV is only the latest phase, of course, in a long pop history of grisly content. Some parents may recall those kids' comic books that were gory beyond anything seen on network TV today. One villain, called something like "The Hatchet," gruesomely earned his sobriquet. On some kids' radio shows, death and destruction were staples. That's one reason why, on TV itself a few years ago, Saturday-morning cartoons seemed to be continuing the tradition with plots of almost unrelieved violence, not all of it comi c or particularly "cartoonish" in its effect.

Yet today these animated TV shows tend not only to be less violent, but also rife with social awareness and political correctness. What happened? Network programmers succumbed to pressure. They saw opposition looming from activists and took the course of least resistance. Except in a few interesting cases, networks tend neither to break through social barriers nor to fall far behind what the general viewer considers barely acceptable.

But networks do like to test the tolerable just to see if a couple of rating points can be gained without a counterproductive backlash. And as their traditional broad base of viewers declines, networks have ventured far beyond the tolerable in an anxious search for survival. A Times-Mirror poll recently found that some 70 percent of Americans thought there was too much violence in TV entertainment. They may disapprove of it, but they watch it: Violent shows tend to get high ratings and are relatively che ap to produce. Networks find this lure irresistible and have been piling on the violence, especially during "sweeps" months.

Armed with the fact that groups like the American Psychological Association now concede a link between behavior and TV content, critics are sounding off, as they did during Senate hearings last week. The media itself has been reflecting on its own sins in shows like "TV Violence: Pulling the Plug," which aired last week on CNN. And industry people have decided to meet in August to deal with growing issue of TV violence.

Apparently the operative premise behind TV's social responsibility has begun to dawn on nearly all concerned: It doesn't matter if the TV-violence connection has been conclusively established. It doesn't even matter that network TV violence is tame compared with feature films and cable TV, where the true gore can be found. If airwaves are owned by the people and in effect "lent" to private groups with the proviso they operate them in "the public interest," it's perfectly fair to demand limits.

After all, TV was supposed to have done something about the problem by now. When Congress passed the Television Improvement Act of 1990, exempting TV for three years from certain antitrust laws, the industry was free to consult on how best to reduce violence. The deadline for improvement is December 1993, and almost any veteran viewer will attest that, far from improving, things have worsened since the early 1980s.

When the industry leaders have that conference in August about this problem, they need to take credible steps to correct it.

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