TELEVISION is having another of its sporadic looks at violence -
in our midst and on our TV screens.
Two major shows on the subject are soon to air on PBS, launching a two-year campaign by the medium and other groups to help society grapple with the problem. Ultimately, the anti-violence project is expected to involve not just broadcasters, but also corporations, foundations, and community associations.
The two PBS programs will be broadcast over three nights. A Bill Moyers special called ``What Can We Do About Violence?'' airs in two parts, this coming Monday and Wednesday, from 9-11 p.m..
In between, on Tuesday, the documentary series ``Frontline'' offers a 90-minute edition called ``Does TV Kill?'' at 9 p.m. (please check local listings for these programs). It examines TV violence and its many and sometimes unexpected forms: prize fights, news, cartoons, and events like coverage of Marilyn Monroe's death.
The peripatetic Moyers does a little show-hopping by appearing on the ``Frontline'' broadcast, leading a 15-minute panel discussion about the impact of television on children and what parents can do about it.
All these shows are thoughtful and effectively produced. But can such broadcasts really change public attitudes?
``My guess is that these two programs are not going to have a tremendous effect on the bulk of the population,'' says Daniel Amundson, director of research at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington group that studies the media's influence on social and political issues.
``They are on PBS,'' he notes, ``and right off the bat that's going to cut down on the audience. That audience is much more self-selective. They tend to view these programs to fortify their beliefs and perhaps to pick up a few new arguments.''
TV in general neglects the issue of the effects of depicting violence, agrees Robert E. Gould, a psychiatrist and president of a small but active New York City-based group called the National Coalition Against Television Violence.
``I don't think the media have paid much attention in ... documentaries or talks by experts,'' Dr. Gould says, ``especially on the commercial networks. There [have] been a couple of brief segments on newsmagazine shows, but very occasionally - we're talking about one segment, 15 minutes. Such sporadic programming gets lost.''
By contrast, Moyers's ``What Can We Do?'' is a detailed and people-oriented look at youth violence in the United States. Its primary aim is coming up with answers that have worked in the lives of a wide range of people. It examines more than a dozen programs -
adult mentoring, parent training, peer education, and other approaches.
Violence in the medium is not overlooked: One segment is a discussion with psychologist David Walsh about what kids take away from the violence they see on TV.
Throughout the program, viewers witness the feelings of real people, such as little kids who describe growing up in a culture of violence, or adults who describe how they cope with the violence around them.
``Frontline'' is also people-oriented - right down to views of statisticians flipping pages as we learn about studies. The often-compelling program plunges viewers into everyday lives. We see people's reactions and emotions - an approach that gives meaning to the data dealt with by scientists on the show.
Both Gould and Amundson say that serious shows like ``Frontline'' and Moyers's - in the face of general media neglect -
are steps in the right direction. Amundson notes Moyers's reputation for thoroughness, and Gould concedes, ``four hours [of Moyers's show] is a lot, comparatively speaking.''
``The programs will slowly enter the public debate,'' Amundson predicts. ``You'll see some of the things that Moyers turns up or that people say on `Frontline' in other people's articles when they write on violence.''