After years of escalating violence on television - and growing public complaints about that violence - the four networks will no longer be able to shrug their corporate shoulders and get away with simply saying, "That's entertainment."
Possibly as early as next fall, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox will provide parental advisories before a program begins, warning about excessive violence to come.
These advisories will also appear in television promotions.
The networks' voluntary agreement keeps them one step ahead of Congress, which is considering imposing a federal system for rating TV violence. And while this special coding serves as a welcome first step in limiting children's exposure to excessive depictions of murder and mayhem, it is only that: a very modest, insufficient beginning. It also raises questions: How much blood, how many bodies, how many smoking guns and battering fists will it take for a particular program to qualify for a warning label?
In the same way that even "R" movie ratings have not kept the under-17 crowd out of theaters showing those films, brief messages flashed on the television screen will not prevent some young viewers from watching. Any "Parental discretion advised" warnings depend on a parent being present to monitor the set.
Even so, implicit in this self-imposed warning system is an encouraging acknowledgment by network executives that a problem exists. They, like their viewers, must take seriously the link between violence on the screen and violence on the street. Now the networks' next step must be not simply to issue warnings but to reduce the amount of violence they send into American homes.
Beyond any action by the networks, parents and other concerned viewers must also take steps of their own to lessen media violence. Among them: Encourage television manufacturers to offer technology allowing parents to block violent programs. Write to networks. Write to advertisers. Above all, stop regarding television as a benign baby sitter. When programming crosses the line from education or entertainment into excessive amounts of blood and gore, it may be time to press the "Off" button on the remote c ontrol.
Ultimately, that's a message producers and advertisers won't be able to ignore.