Biting the Bullet on TV Violence

ONE of the biggest hands President Clinton received during his State of the Union address on Tuesday - from both parties, it appeared - came in response to his criticism of the incessant violence on the media.

But in the case of commercial TV, you'd almost think the point had already been conceded - that TV had acknowledged its role in the spread of the violence in today's society and was trying to make up for it.

Last night, CBS was scheduled to devote all of its prime-time schedule to a documentary investigation of the problem. Sitcoms and other formats are jumping on the bandwagon. On last Wednesday's edition of the CBS series ``Women of the House,'' a congresswoman and her staff met to study violence on the media, leading to quarrels over politics. The Feb. 10 edition of ABC's series ``Family Matters'' will deal with guns in schools.

MTV, the music-video channel, has been conducting what it calls an antiviolence campaign: ``Enough is Enough.'' The campaign is designed to discourage the kind of violence that many critics feel is being celebrated by MTV itself, through the crime-tolerant, antifemale imagery of some of its music.

Unfortunately, the problem calls for much more than the medium's welcome but sporadic bursts of attention, which tend to happen when the issue is hot and likely to generate viewers.

The steps TV really needs to take are much harder. A few self-correcting measures would do more than hours of documentary coverage. One step would be to reduce the violent content of some of the children's cartoons aired by the networks. That's the kind of programming where the least improvement has been made.

During prime time, when adults watch TV (although more kids watch during that period than many people realize), violence has actually dropped somewhat from 10 or 15 years ago, when cop-and-crime shows like ``Miami Vice'' and ``Hunter'' were the mainstay. Sitcoms are big at the moment, and their formats naturally contain less physical action.

But meanwhile cartoon violence is going strong, and the kind of violence that cartoons contain is worse than ever, some experts say.

Another helpful step would be rationing those ``action-packed'' feature films, where much of the commercial network's prime-time mayhem is found these days. Admittedly, that move would require a willingness by the networks to bite the bullet during Sweeps months.

A less opportunistic approach to blood-soaked crime news is also in order. No one expects local stations to drop their police beats or the networks not to pounce on irresistible events like the O.J. Simpson trial. But give us a break! TV and local news used the Rodney King beating scene so repetitiously that it branded the terrible images into the consciousness of viewers. And how many rehashings must we see and hear of the grisly details involved in the O.J. Simpson trial? Just the courtroom facts, ma'am.

I hope the violence documentaries continue. But meanwhile let the networks do something about it.

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