Sen. Paul Simon bluntly told members of the broadcast industry Monday that either they must exercise greater self-restraint in regard to violent programming or Congress will step in and do it for them.
He was speaking at a one-day seminar on TV violence sponsored by the National Council on Families & Television.
The key facet of his proposal calls for the industry to form its own self-policing committee (he suggested calling it the Advisory Office on Television Violence), charged with reporting annually to the public on levels of TV violence as proof of “a desire to sustain better programming” and not let the issue fade into the background.
Simon, who has been at the center of the congressional debate over television violence, provided the keynote address of Monday’s seminar at the BevHilton Hotel. He also sought to dispel any notion that the furor surrounding the issue can be written off as political posturing on Capitol Hill.
The Illinois Democrat, reiterating his view that television is clearly a cause — if not the cause — of violence in society, outlined a seven-point plan for defining the creative community’s role in curbing TV violence without resorting to direct censorship.
He told the audience he hopes for “some indication that we’re moving in the right direction” in the next 60 days.
Simon proposed that the monitoring committee adopt standards less subjective than those set out by the networks in their jointly drafted violence advisories; he further suggested that someone like Walter Cronkite or John Chancellor be tapped to head the effort.
“Without some type of monitoring, the lure of profits will entice those less responsible to abuse their privilege,” he said, underscoring the regulatory threat by saying later, “Either you will initiate the effort for such a monitoring office or those outside the industry will do it.”
With censorship as the real cloud hovering over Monday’s conference, Simon rattled off more than a half-dozen such measures raised by various congressmen during the debate, telling the crowd he opposed that solution but couldn’t speak for his colleagues.
Of the legislative remedies, he added ominously, “I can tell you that none of the sponsors of these initiatives (is) losing votes back home with these ideas.”
During a press conference, Simon counseled some kind of movement on the advisory committee within 60 days to forestall congressional intervention. “Inaction by the industry will invite the wrong kind of response,” he said.
The senator declined to discuss specific incidents of violence or even say whether he felt it was better to show graphic violence in order to demonstrate its consequences. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he noted, saying only that efforts should be made not to glamorize violence.
With a clear warning intended, the senator added, “If it becomes obvious that one branch of your industry loves money more than responsibility, that will not go unnoticed in Washington.”
Other parts of Simon’s plan are recognition by the creative community “that self-restraint is essential for a democracy to function” (quoting FCC commissioner Erwin Duggan that the public interest is not always that which interests the public); industrywide cooperation and involvement; continued vigilance through the monitoring system; and avoiding glamorization of violence.
Simon also proposed that violent promos be eliminated or reduced; that the medium do more to educate about harmful effects of violence; and that television be more aware of the violent images it exports and the image that it creates abroad. That last point underscores some of the problems facing the industry, since action and adventure shows are the most easily translatable and popular overseas, as well as reliant on such sales to offset high production costs.
“All of these things are easy to say for an outsider who does not understand all of your problems,” Simon allowed. “But I do understand our culture. I do know the mood of the electorate and of my colleagues in government.”
Immediate reaction wasn’t favorable to Simon’s advisory committee concept. “The proposed committee simply adds a bureaucratic element to this many-layered issue,” said Writers Guild of America West prez Del Reisman.
“A watchdog committee, no matter how distinguished its membership, is in itself a danger. The problem with excessive violence must be dealt with by the industry itself, which I believe now will take it seriously.”
Simon drew a distinction between feature films and homevideo — which require “a conscious effort” on the part of the viewer — and television, “an uninvited guest” in the home.
He also acknowledged that television was part of a larger mosaic of societal violence.
Despite studies provided by the Motion Picture Assn. of America that express reservations about a causal link between TV and violence, Simon maintained during his speech that the evidence is “just as overwhelming as the evidence that cigarettes do harm.”
He also sought to preempt various industry arguments, such as that television only reflects a violent society.