Over the past few years, several distinct groups have emerged in the debate about violence on television. On one side is the TV industry, which has downplayed the violence and argued its right to freedom of expression. On another side are concerned parents and advocacy groups, who have deplored what they've seen on TV. Enter the federal government, which has passed legislation for a V-chip to block out objectionable programs. The Clinton administration has also persuaded the TV networks to rate their programs for objectionable content starting next year.
Amid all this wrangling, a major new study by the Center for Communication Policy at UCLA reports a decline in gratuitous violence on network television (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, UPN, and WB) during the 1995-96 season.
The networks say the study proves what they've been saying all along: They aren't to blame for a surfeit of violence on TV. An NBC statement says the study "debunks myths that have been promoted for political gain" and "confirms what we at NBC have been stating for years - that network programming is not the source of violence on television."
Betsy Weaver, editor of the Boston-based Parent's Paper, acknowledges the networks have a right to pat themselves on the back, but would urge them not to pass out the gold stars just yet. "One year does not a trend make," she says.
Indeed, the study was released one week prior to the debut of what may be this season's creepiest new drama. Mark Honig, executive director for the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council, is extremely concerned about FOX's "Millennium," from "X-Files" creator Chris Carter. Many critics say it contains some of the most graphic content ever seen on network TV. " 'TV Guide' called it the most disturbing, chilling hour on TV ... a 'Silence of the Lambs' for prime time," he says.
The UCLA study, which was commissioned in 1994 by ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC partly in response to public pressure, found only five shows out of 114 that frequently portrayed violence either gratuitously or with glorification: CBS's "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Nash Bridges"; and FOX's "New York Undercover," "Space: Above and Beyond," and "Kindred: the Embraced." (The last two were cancelled.)
While the study found few complaints with the networks who commissioned the project, they had a "pretty serious problem" with UPN. "They were using violence to put themselves on the map," says Marde Gregory, associate director for the Center of Communication Policy.
The UCLA study examines violence in the context of how it's treated, rather than simply counting bodies as some other studies have done. "Not all violence is equal," Ms. Gregory says. "You can't have an episode of 'Law & Order' without a crime," Gregory notes, praising that show, as well as "N.Y.P.D. Blue" for the sensitive way they "deal with the story surrounding the violence," rather than simply relying on violence to carry the plot.
Ms. Weaver agrees with this approach. "If your main interest is how [TV violence] impacts young children, then context is very important." But she doesn't dismiss the importance of counting the number of violent acts portrayed.
Gregory says it's too soon to call the decline a trend but believes this year, the third in the ongoing study, should be pivotal. But, she adds, it will take months of viewing before they know.
Mr. Honig also believes that it's too soon to define this season's trends toward violence, but says he sees the networks moving in individual directions. While he is critical of FOX, also citing its popular "X-Files," Honig lauds WB and CBS "for making a conscious effort to air viewing suitable for all ages" during the 8 to 9 p.m. time slot. He praises WB's "7th Heaven" and CBS's "Promised Land," "Cosby," and "Touched by an Angel" as positive, family-friendly series.
There's also the question of what's replacing the violence. Honig says violence is not the only area of concern for parents. "While violence may be coming down, you see other things creeping in - bad language and sexual innuendo." He cites such shows as "The Nanny" and "Friends."
Robert Thompson, associate professor of TV and film at Syracuse University, is also unimpressed. "You see a lot of these 'harmless comedies.' I'm not sure snippy, snide comedies are less harmless."
Mr. Thompson thinks a better question would be: "Is TV telling better stories? Are they better presenting the human condition?" He isn't optimistic: "After this season, I would say TV is no better, nor do I think we are somehow safer from bad ideas than we were last year."