TV violence standards have look of a paper tiger

AT FIRST GLANCE IT SOUNDS NOBLE and desirable: Let’s get the broadcast networks to agree on standards to try to curb violence on television.

Upon further inspection, however, the agreement worked out at the urging of Sen. Paul Simon is as vague, unenforceable and toothless as nearly all efforts–well-intentioned or otherwise–to impose such safeguards and limits on broad areas of entertainment.

In fact, the idea of seeking to curb depictions of violence comes at a time when TV’s violence quotient, in a conventional sense, would appear to be down, while more unconventional images and situations are exploding across the dial.

Reality programs, for example, frequently re-create violent acts or, when the footage is available, show actual scenes of violence. Is this excessive? Are programs like “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted” fulfilling a public service, or should they be curbed? What about professional wrestling, an old staple that continues to enjoy popularity in syndication and on cable?

The guidelines accepted by the networks say they should seek to avoid depictions of violence that “shock or stimulate the audience,” as well as scenes that portray “callousness or indifference to suffering.” Still, doesn’t well-made programming stimulate the audience? And can’t one demonstrate compassion through demonstrations of callousness?

As with almost any attempt at censorship, even self-imposed, the result usually generates more questions than answers. To put it in simple journalistic form:

Who are we trying to protect? Much of the discussion of violence centers on how it affects children, but an element within the debate also cites the fear of imitative violence by adults. Is it necessary or desirable for a network to program to the most susceptible among us? Can any programmer entertain and still pre-empt allegations that they presented material that would set off a psychopath?

What sort of violence are we talking about? The kind in “GoodFellas,” or “The Silence of the Lambs,” or in “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”? Is there any credence to the belief that showing consequences through stark, unglamorized brutality makes it seem less appealing, and that sanitizing violence makes it more palatable?

When do we make an exception? Obviously, certain shows carry with them creative auspices that allow greater leeway in terms of exploring certain issues. “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere” occasionally presented jarring scenes of violence in making their point, though it’s doubtful many would find the scenes unnecessary or exploitative.

Where do we draw the line? The guidelines were endorsed by the broadcast networks, but news accounts indicate they are simply adhering to their own standards and the hope is that cable and independent stations will follow suit. Will the drive stop there? What about the pay TV services, pay-per-view, even homevideo?

Why should viewers care? This may be the most significant question of all, and the answer is no clearer than to any of those above. The question lingers: Is television a cause of social ills or simply a mirror? The answer is probably a little of both, but studies that indicate TV causes violence never adequately address how so many of us from the generation raised on TV violence — all those wonderful westerns and cartoons — turned out relatively normal.

How far are we willing to go in efforts to limit violence? Do we really want to draw sharp lines around programming, and if not, isn’t the whole exercise ultimately going to be pointless anyway?

One thing is certain: Viewers presented with an increasing list of options will need to be titillated in new ways. The appetite for reality programming has already demonstrated as much, as have syndicated shows like “American Gladiators” and sundry imitators.

Ever since “Network” provided the blueprint of a spooky future for TV news when it was released in 1976, critics have cited examples–from Geraldo Rivera’s specials to NBC’s “I Witness Video”–saying that day has arrived. Sixteen years later, and it’s still hard to tell whether we should be mad as hell, or just a little bit peeved.

EVERYTHING’S COMING UP ROSEANNE: Speaking of violence, now that she’s had her say, haven’t we all heard enough from Roseanne Arnold in her TV-radio-print campaign about those abusive television critics?

OK, so Roseanne, like most everyone else, doesn’t like getting bad reviews. Celebrities are entitled to respond to critics, and however pointless it may seem, the process did manage to keep “The Jackie Thomas Show” in the headlines for another week, suggesting that the apparent outrage may in fact be a bit of clever calculation. Regardless, public adulation has always been the sweetest revenge for critical scorn, and the Arnolds have certainly had their share of both.

Still, for Roseanne to present herself as a downtrodden woman and victim of misogyny is cynical and ridiculous in the extreme. The Arnolds’ press is no worse than that bestowed on other celebrities, male or female, prone to occasional bouts of public boorishness.

Actually, the press has been rather nice about overlooking aspects of the Arnolds’ persona that don’t jibe with the “Roseanne” image, presenting its title character as a champion of the working class when, in fact, the Carsey-Werner production is shot on a non-union basis and must use a separate entrance at the CBS-MTM Studios. It bears mentioning, as well, that all those folks who keep getting summarily fired are (or were) working people.

Critical brickbats are part of a star’s job and, in light of the perks, usually a small price to pay. Or, to quote that famous media pundit, Super Chicken, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

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