In the wake of the tragic shootings at Columbine High School last spring, some in the media seemed to wake up with a newfound sense of self-restraint.
At least two television episodes were pulled, and a handful of others reworked because they were deemed too violent and inappropriate as the nation mourned the killings in Colorado. Several networks also passed on fall series considered too violent. At the time, critics of violence in the media hoped that signaled the birth of a more responsible consciousness in Hollywood.
Today, they are divided on whether such moves signal a hopeful new trend or just a temporary reaction to the crisis.
But most do agree on two things: There is still way too much violence in the nation's media that is shown, all too often, in a moral vacuum. And the rating systems, which were designed to give parents a guide to the commercial mayhem, are proving inadequate.
"It's not just how much violence is shown, it's how the violence is shown," says Bob Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) in Washington. "It's shown as OK for the good guys to use, it doesn't hurt anybody a lot of the time - it's often seen as harmless, necessary, and even laudable."
Dr. Lichter and his colleagues spent a year analyzing the violent content in the top television series, movies, and music videos of the 1998-1999 season.
They found that on average, once every four minutes TV and movie viewers were assaulted by an act of serious violence as defined by the FBI's violent crime index - murder, rape, kidnapping, and assault with a deadly weapon. And the study, released yesterday in Washington and touted as the most comprehensive of its kind, found that the majority of the 10 most violent films and television series were rated as appropriate for teenagers.
"The ratings may have well been assigned by a coin toss," says Lichter.
Entertainment industry leaders balk at such criticism. They argue the movie ratings, at least, are assigned by a special board made up of parents, not industry officials.
The ratings are designed as tools to give parents a guide. If they want more information, the Motion Picture Association of America also provides an explanation as to why each film was given a particular rating.
"They are subjective," admits the MPAA's Rich Taylor. "Someone may see a film that's rated PG-13 and say, 'That should have been an R,' but that's because they're not based on a hard mathematical formula."
Lichter acknowledges that rating violence can be a difficult art in itself. For example, the critically-acclaimed "Saving Private Ryan," which was rated R, had the largest number of acts of serious violence by far in the CMPA study. Lichter says the war movie has redeeming social and artistic qualities.
But he argues it was the "exception that proves the rule," noting the other nine films were "standard fare shoot 'em up" sensations, where violence was rarely shown to cause physical or emotional harm, was rarely judged as right or wrong, and was perpetrated almost as often by good guys as bad ones.
But Mr. Taylor points out that, even before the Columbine tragedy, Jack Valenti, the head of the MPAA, had urged entertainment-industry leaders to use restraint - to examine their work and excise any violence they considered gratuitous. "Because of the production timeline, you won't see the results of that immediately," he says.
And Taylor also repeats the industry's constant refrain, that it's ultimately up to individual parents to determine what's appropriate for their children.
But that argument raises the hackles of many media critics, particularly because they contend ratings don't give parents an accurate picture of the content.
They're particularly concerned about the new television ratings that are assigned by the industry itself.
The National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) in Minneapolis set up independent panels of parents and had them rate television series and movies. The level of agreement with industry-set ratings was "disturbingly low," according to NIMF president David Walsh.
"If the parents were doing the ratings, many of these programs would be rated much more stringently," says Dr. Walsh, adding that the greatest disagreement usually centers around violence.
Walsh believes the industry needs to address that discrepancy sooner rather than later. He also believes the jury is still out on whether the post-Columbine show of restraint in the entertainment industry's use of violence signaled a new trend.
But he's hopeful. He notes that in addition to some network executives shying from too-violent fare, advertisers like Procter and Gamble are also determined to support more family-oriented TV.
And some in the entertainment industry are working to bring a consensus to the debate. "We're advising consumers to vote with their dollar," says Robin Bronk, the executive director of The Creative Coalition, an entertainment-industry advocacy group. "It's so important for every member of society to support the programming and entertainment that they believe is viable and appropriate."
But Walsh says the entertainment industry also has a responsibility to consider the social impact of their products and develop a code of ethics to guide content and behavior.
"The real solution is for everyone to take some responsibility in the area over which they have some control," he says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society