THE enduring debate over violence on television is reaching a new level.
For years, studies have catalogued and critics have decried the amount of murder and mayhem on the small screen. Now a new study - paid for by the cable TV industry itself - finds the violence prevalent and posing ''risks'' to viewers.
Clearly, the industry is hoping the research, the most comprehensive ever done on the effects of TV violence, will stave off further federal efforts to regulate the industry. But it is emboldening some lawmakers to want to act now. Others say it shows the industry is at least facing up to a problem it has long denied.
''It exceeded my hopes,'' says Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, who brokered the political agreement that brought forth the study and who first pushed the media to do some serious soul-searching and scientific research in 1993. ''It is a pull-no-punches study that says we have a serious problem.''
The $1.5 million National Television Violence Study, released yesterday, was paid for by the cable industry as part of its ongoing efforts to respond to public outcries over commercial television's daily menu of shootings and stabbings.
Conducted by media scholars at four universities, it is the first of three annual reports that will be used as benchmarks to assess the media's efforts at self-regulation.
''We acknowledge that cable, like the entire television industry, has a responsibility to participate in serious and substantive efforts to address TV violence,'' says Decker Anstrom, president of the National Cable Television Association, who ''welcomed'' the findings in a tersely worded release.
Little screen of horrors?
The initial results indicate the industry has its work cut out for it. The researchers found violence in most of the 2,500 hours of programming analyzed. But the most disturbing aspect was the context in which the punching, slapping, kicking, and shootings were shown.
For instance, perpetrators of violence go unpunished in 73 percent of all violent scenes, which, according to the researchers, teaches the lesson ''that violence is successful.''
Forty-seven percent of all violent interactions show no harm to the victim, and 58 percent show no pain. Fully 84 percent of the programs that portray violence show no long-term negative consequences - physical, financial, or emotional.
Violence through a different lens
''No longer should the debate focus merely on the amount of television violence,'' says Edward Donnerstein of the University of California at Santa Barbara. ''Our study identifies the contextual features of media violence that are most problematic.''
For some researchers who've spent years cataloguing TV violence, the report only confirms the need for action.
''It's finally time to say enough,'' says Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a think tank in Washington. ''We know there's lots of violence. Now the question is what do we do to protect people from it?''
Congress has already given parents one tool. The Telecommunications Reform Bill that President Clinton will sign today requires the entertainment industry to set up a rating system and television manufacturers to install a computer chip, known as the V-chip, which will allow parents to screen out violent programs.
While critics note that many technically astute kids could easily learn to override the chip, even supporters admit it will take up to 10 years for the chip to be distributed enough to have nationwide impact.
''But more significantly, the homes that need it the most are not the homes where it will necessarily be used,'' says Senator Simon, who's banking on the industry to live up to its agreement and use the study's findings to begin curbing its appetite for violence and changing the way it's portrayed now, rather than later.
Others want action now - and the study has reinforced their views. ''Let's get down to business,'' says Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) of South Carolina, author of a bill that would create ''safe harbors'' by channeling violent programming into hours when children don't make up a substantial part of the audience. ''Instead of dilly-dallying and talking about doing something, let's pass the bill and get this gratuitous violence off the air.''