Washington Turns Up The Debate on TV Violence

SINCE Jan Cummings banned her five-year-old son, Joseph, from watching ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,'' he no longer lunges around their Baltimore home karate-chopping and fan-kicking into thin air. ''I see a major difference in his behavior. He's much less aggressive,'' she says.

Ms. Cummings's concerns on TV violence are widely shared, and in recent weeks the issue has again risen to the top of the national consciousness. This week, President Clinton endorsed a proposal to allow parents to electronically block violent programs, and Congress held hearings on a bill that would restrict broadcasters from airing violent shows when a substantial number of children are likely to be watching.

This is not the first time Congress has threatened to get involved with the entertainment industry. Since the 1950s, the apparent impact on children of rising levels of television violence has periodically spawned congressional calls for regulation, more responsible programming, and academic studies. Those, in turn, elicited fervent cries of censorship, defenses of First Amendment freedoms, and pledges of good behavior from the entertainment industry. The result has been a stalemate of sorts, and more violence on TV.

''There's been a circle of blame,'' says Elizabeth Thoman, executive director of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, who notes that the preponderance of research has linked viewing TV violence to increases in aggression.

This most recent public outcry about media violence was prompted by voters increasingly concerned about real-life bloodshed in their own neighborhoods, and by the savvy campaign staff of Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas.

Last month, Senator Dole castigated Hollywood for producing ''nightmares of depravity'' and putting ''profits before common decency.'' Soon, other politicians were lining up to decry what they called the destructive influences of Hollywood's increasingly gruesome dream machine.

''I don't care if the politics may appear hypocritical or expedient,'' says Dr. Bob Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. ''To get rid of the sludge of popular culture, the people who produce it must be treated like polluters and pornographers. They have to be made to feel ashamed of what they do.''

An array of proposals designed to curb TV violence are under discussion in Washington and Hollywood, ranging from FCC regulation, to technological quick fixes, to voluntary restraints and rating systems.

This week, at a conference on family policy in Tennessee, President Clinton endorsed the so-called V-chip. The inexpensive microchip could be installed in TV sets and allow parents to block out any programs rated as violent. ''This is not censorship, this is parental responsibility,'' Clinton said.

An amendment to the telecommunications bill that recently passed the Senate requires the development of the V-chip, along with the establishment of a voluntary TV-rating system that could be invisibly transmitted with each program. If private industry failed to develop the systems within a year, the amendment stipulates that the government would mandate both the chip and the rating system.

''The V-chip is the opposite of the infringement on the right to speak,'' says Sissela Bok, a noted social critic who is writing a book on violence in the media. ''It gives parents control over what comes into the home; it doesn't affect the programming that's available.''

The idea of some sort of electronic blocking device to allow parents to control what comes into their homes has been around for more than a decade. Such a system was even patented in 1981, but at the time, the inventor couldn't raise any capital to produce it. No one seemed to think it would sell.

Since then, cable television has penetrated two-thirds of American homes, bringing a proliferation of viewing options ranging from the raunchy to the sublime. The Fox Network has gone on air, challenging the dominance, and standards of taste, of the three major broadcast networks. Suddenly, many parents have discovered that the era of ''Leave It to Beaver'' has given way to ''Beavis and Butthead'' hour.

In 1993, a USA Today poll showed 68 percent of Americans favored some sort of V-chip technology. In early 1995, that number was up to 90 percent.

''It's clear the public is clamoring to have some control over its TV sets,'' says Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, who this week introduced companion V-chip legislation in the House.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, an array of experts from academia, industry, and public-interest groups also endorsed the V-chip, but differed on whether government should mandate its implementation or let free-market forces put it into the 220 million US homes with TVs.

''I don't want America's children exposed to needless violence and filth, but I part company with those who would prescribe government censorship,'' says Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, chairman of the committee.

Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) of South Carolina, while supporting the idea in general, noted it could take 10 years for the technology to reach most American homes. And once it's there, Senator Hollings is convinced that computer-savvy children will have an easier time bypassing the device than most parents will have in getting it to work in the first place.

''If the technology is that simple, when the parent leaves ..., the child will simply fix the V-chip to his liking,'' he says.

Hollings has what he says is a simpler, more immediate solution: Require the FCC to regulate a so-called ''safe harbor'' that would prevent broadcasters and cable operators from broadcasting violent programs when children are a substantial portion of the audience.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota wants to create a national TV violence report card to let parents know the level of violence in a program, and who is sponsoring it.

''We've talked about [violence in the media] for 40 years; it's long past time for us to deal with it,'' Senator Dorgan says.

THE TV industry, as expected, chafes at such criticism. Entertainment executives contend they've been dealing with the issues of broadcast standards and quality in a responsible way for decades. They insist that they oppose such things as mandatory rating systems and blocking technologies on the grounds of free speech.

''It's very difficult to assign a program to a category because my violence could be your thoughtful program,'' says Julie Hoover, spokeswoman for Capital Cities/ ABC. ''People have different standards of what's acceptable, what's violent.''

Ms. Hoover notes that the television industry has already begun voluntarily issuing parental warnings on material it deems to have excessive violence. ABC also provides an 800 number for parents to call. Last year, at the urging of Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, the networks and National Cable Television Association contracted with several universities to do a qualitative analysis of TV violence. The first report is scheduled to be released in September.

''I think we have seen some progress being made,'' says Senator Simon, a long-time critic of TV violence who opposes mandating changes in the industry, at least for now. ''The surest solution is government involvement, but it is also the most dangerous.''

Politicians Tune In to TV Violence.

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