CANADA is ringing in the new year with an assault on television violence: a new self-regulating code developed by broadcasters that is being called the toughest in North America.
While political leaders in the United States prod and poke reluctant media executives to do something about violent programming, Canada is getting results by employing a typically Canadian consensus-style approach to dealing with societal problems.
Beginning Jan. 1, an industry watchdog group will monitor compliance with the private-broadcast industry's own voluntary code. Canadian regulators, in turn, will watch the watchdog to ensure that unresolved public complaints are weighed when broadcast licenses are up for renewal.
``We firmly believe we have struck the right balance between free speech on the one hand and informing the public and protecting children on the other,'' said Canadian Association of Broadcasters President Michael McCabe in a statement. ``Our code is stronger than anything used by other players in the Canadian broadcast industry, or being considered in the United States. It sets standards by which others will be judged.''
Under the code, broadcasters will be expected to:
* Ban all ``gratuitous and glamorized violence.''
* Confine violent scenes intended for adults to after 9 p.m.
* Ban any program that ``sanctions, promotes, or glamorizes any aspect of violence against women,'' minorities, or animals.
* Set strict rules on violence depicted in children's shows.
* Provide viewer advisories on violence content of shows.
* Provide guidelines for depiction of violence in news, sports, and public-affairs programs.
Cable TV is unaffected so far, as are specialty channels like music-video, sports, and movie stations. Though the code applies only to privately owned broadcasters (public broadcasting already has a code), the pact is a breakthrough that builds an impetus for widening industry participation in limiting TV violence, officials say.
``I would say that what we have achieved with the broadcasters' code is vitally important, but only about 10 percent of the solution,'' says Keith Spicer, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission in the US. The vast majority of the work will be educating the public about TV violence, a campaign that begins in Canada in earnest next year.
``What we're trying to do in both our countries,'' Mr. Spicer says, ``is to make the relentless diet of glamorized violence socially unacceptable.''
The reasons Canada has succeeded with its broadcasters is a tale of the carrot and the stick, political leadership, and a young woman with gumption.
Virginie Lariviere, a Quebec teenager, started what evolved into a national campaign when she collected 1.5 million signatures on a petition urging that violence on TV be regulated.
Ms. Lariviere ``brought the public pressure to bear,'' Spicer says. After that, former Minister of Communications Perrin Beatty picked up the cause, and with Spicer's CRTC began to gently urge broadcasters to do something themselves, rather than have the public mood force government to act.
``We never started by talking about laws and regulations,'' Spicer says. ``We began by taking everybody to dinner and saying, `Look, we don't want to regulate, that would be a horror show.' Meanwhile, of course, there was a huge public movement on the outside.''
Advocates for nonviolent children's television applaud the code, but say it won't be nearly enough to deal with the flood of violence pouring out of the tube from many other sources, including violent video games and rentable video movies.
``This [code] is certainly a step in the right direction,'' says Rose Dyson, chairwoman of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, a citizen's organization. ``It will help raise public awareness. But there's a limit to what this code will do. It is misleading the public if they expect a lot from it.''
TOM PERLMUTTER, executive director of the Alliance for Children and Television, says the new broadcast code ``is being made to seem more than it is.'' Still, he says, ``it's a good step.... The issue is really one of education - sensitizing broadcasters and moviemakers themselves to the issue, to make them aware that what they do has a social impact.''
When Spicer visited with Hollywood screenwriters and movie executives in February, the mood was one of suspicion at first, but soon become a frank discussion in which screenwriters told how proud they were of getting rid of booze and drugs in films.
``They said, `We could get rid of violence if we put our minds to it,' '' Spicer says. ``In any profession there are prevailing orthodoxies that are hard to get rid of. In this case, the orthodoxy of violence has been grafted onto the right to free speech.''
With private broadcasters on the bandwagon, Spicer's CRTC is now requiring all segments of the TV industry not yet covered by a violence code to come up with their own codes.
Canadian cable operators recently filed their own action plan with the federal government. One of cable's main problems is that it carries many signals from US networks and other channels, but is not allowed under Canadian law to alter the signal or shift violent programs to later in the evening. That regulation needs to be examined, critics say.
In the end, ``Nothing works as well as having millions of people convinced that a voluntary approach to this balance is the right way to go,'' Spicer says. ``In a democracy, you have to bring the people along with you. They all have to be at the table. If that seems incredibly naive, it's really the most hard-nosed realism.''