From the small screen, signs of restraint

The recent spate of school shootings has fueled a growing moral tension in American society over popular culture. And some in the entertainment industry are responding with a newfound sense of self-restraint.

Eager to avoid federal regulation and the assault of industry censors, network executives and producers are canceling some shows considered too disturbing and reworking others.

But the question remains: Does this represent part of a deeper rethinking of what should go on the small screen, or simply a temporary reaction to a crisis?

While some critics dismiss them as a superficial response, the signs of a new mood are stacking up:

*Last week, CBS decided not to put a ballyhooed Mafia series into its fall lineup. CBS president Les Moonves told the New York Post this was "not the right time to show people being whacked on the streets of New York."

*The season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was postponed because the WB network decided it would be inappropriate to air scenes of attacks on students at a graduation. An earlier episode had been pulled because the plot involved someone in the student body contemplating killing other students.

*CBS withdrew the April 22 episode of "Promised Land," which involved a gang shooting at a high school that was, coincidentally, not far from Littleton, Colo., where 15 died in the shootings at Columbine High School last month.

*NBC modified a recent miniseries, "Atomic Train," and pulled its sensational promos. The local Denver affiliate canned the two-part series altogether.

"It was a tragic wake-up call," says David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, of incidents like the Littleton shootings. "But in the last five weeks, the conversation has not so much been 'Does it have an effect?' The conversation now is much more frequently 'What can we do, what's the solution?' "

Part of the answer among members of Congress is a juvenile-justice bill approved last week by the Senate and still pending in the House. One provision would require the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to investigate Hollywood's marketing practices to determine if it is intentionally trying to sell violent fare to the nation's vulnerable youths. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, also bans the filming of "wanton and gratuitous" violence on federal property and prohibits federal agencies from cooperating with moviemakers that feature it.

Many in the creative community balk at such moves, and continue to staunchly defend their First Amendment rights. Dick Wolfe, the creator and executive producer of NBC's "Law & Order," lashed out at Congress for displaying hypocrisy - such as Senator Brownback's vote to repeal an assault-weapons ban - in what he notes is a clearly complex set of social issues that contributed to the shootings.

Wolfe also insists his show regularly does display a "real sense of responsibility," noting they've never done anything on teen suicide. "With all these school shootings now, it may seem attractive for kids to go out in blazing glory," he says. "But doing these stories may trigger an imitative response in kids." Wolfe was speaking at a gathering of Hollywood's brightest writing talent at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.

Marshall Herskovitz, co-creator of "thirtysomething" and executive producer of "My So-Called Life," said the writer's obligation is to tell the truth. And he challenged the notion that TV has an overwhelming impact on society. "Since 1972, prime-time television has absolutely had a liberal bias - there's no question in my mind," he said. "And this was so extraordinarily influential in the culture that by 1980 we elected Ronald Reagan for president...."

But Mr. Herskovitz also said he felt an "overall responsibility to do things that are in some way fundamentally humanistic, and exploring the issues of being a person - sometimes that's violent and sometimes that's scary - but it's always interconnected and complicated."

Steven Bochco, who created the landmark series "Hill Street Blues" and is now executive producer of "NYPD Blue," is known for breaking television's barriers for language and sex on the air. But he too believes it is part of the artist's responsibility to "explore rich complex issues" that affect everyone. "This medium, while kicking and screaming, is getting dragged into the realm of creativity it's never seen before," Mr. Bochco said.

Dr. Walsh doesn't disagree with that. And he's not calling for censorship. He contends that the greatest threats to the media's current freedoms are programs that engage irresponsibly in excessive gratuitous violence. The industry, he says, has a responsibility to ask certain questions: "Is violence necessary for me to tell this story? If it is necessary, how do I portray it? Do I accentuate, do I glamorize, do I trivialize it?"

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