Biz: besieged but unbowed

Put under a spotlight that included blazing TV cameras and a circuslike atmosphere — and despite the cautionary remarks of Sen. Paul Simon — it was for the most part an unrepentant television industry that convened Monday for a much-touted seminar on television violence.

More than 600 showbiz executives and more than 100 reporters attended the daylong meeting, sponsored by the National Council for Families & Television. The combative tone was set during an opening panel of four researchers quoting their findings on the issue, with questions raised by ABC News correspondent Jeff Greenfield drawing frequent smatters of applause from the audience.

The entertainment exex were beset from the start by the researchers, then lectured and warned by Simon (D-Ill.) about congressional action. Finally, they witnessed various leaders sharing the stage with TV activists during “Socratic dialogues” conducted by Harvard law professor Arthur R. Miller.

At that last afternoon session, in fact, producer Edgar J. Scherick seemed to express much of the pent-up exasperation in the room when he rose from the audience to shout at Carole Lieberman, chair of the National Coalition on Television Violence, who in essence had called into question the conscience of the industry.

Greenfield, who moderated the two morning sessions, put the event in perspective during his opening remarks, skeptically calling it “an historic moment, or a smokescreen … a turning point, or an anthropomorphic fig leaf” to Congress.

The ABC News media analyst also seemed to speak for many in the room when he said, “Television violence has no constituency. (So) if you are looking for a target that has no other side, you have found it.”

Producer and conference co-chair Marian Rees sought to lower expectations at the outset, saying the conference was “truly historic” and “already a success” in having merely convened to address the issue. She stressed that the ultimate goal was greater sensitivity to violence, not to carve out a set of guidelines.

“The (Hollywood) community, by your presence, is thinking about violence in its work as it never has before,” she said.

Still, the feeling of an industry under siege seemed to permeate the room, and officials in many instances took a more combative public tone than they had on Capitol Hill, questioning both studies on violence and proposals to regulate the industry.

During a session on children’s programming that followed the research panel, for example, both producer Stephen J. Cannell and ABC standards & practices VP Christine Hikawa expressed frustration over the academic view outlined, which included equating cartoon violence with more graphic depictions. “When I hear (that), their credibility goes out the window with me,” Hikawa said.

Cannell maintained that it was ultimately the network’s role to act as the buffer between the creative community and sources of such concerns. “I don’t know any writer who can write effectively with these sort of criteria sitting in front of them,” he said, adding that he didn’t object to networks making such judgments but didn’t believe he should “be asked to be my own critic.”

Later, the producer — defending his show “The A-Team” as cartoon-style violence that children can see for what it is — questioned the research, because “the scale is so elusive … You’re trying to deal with this, and you can’t get your hands on it.”

Leonard Eron, the most outspoken of the researchers, maintained that there is a “definite link” between watching violence and aggression, even criminal behavior. Viewed violence, he said, affects up to 10% of violent actions.

He added that the parental advisories agreed to by the networks “won’t make a damn bit of difference,” since in his view much of the problem occurs in cartoons and advisories will be limited to primetime. In addition, parents don’t supervise children’s viewing habits the way they should — particularly for kids who are most at risk. “You can’t say, ‘Pass it off on the parents,’ ” he said.

The comment was directly rebutted during an afternoon session by CBS Entertainment prez Jeff Sagansky, who maintained that “parents in the home is where the first line of defense has to be.”

Eron spoke at length about the danger of cartoons — which, he said, fail to demonstrate the permanence and seriousness of violence. Greenfield responded, “I wonder if (discussion of cartoons) doesn’t undermine the much more serious issues we have brought up,” drawing an ovation from the industry audience.

While society “can’t expect television to make up for lack of parenting,” Eron acknowledged, he maintained that TV had to be mindful of its effect on children via its “incessant repetition” of images.

Other researchers present, such as George Gerbner, were slightly more solicitous, calling the occasion “historic” and a discussion of cultural policy. They suggested that the industry deal with the question through expanded creativity rather than government censorship.

Suzanne Stutman of the Institute for Mental Health Initiative, proposed pro-social approaches to dealing with the issue by “making violence unacceptable , un-glamorous and an unrewarding way for dealing with conflict.” Television’s influence, she said, “is an opportunity. It doesn’t have to be a threat.”

The afternoon Socratic dialogue produced several amusing and at times heated exchanges, among them producer Dick Wolf’s dialogue with NCTV’s Lieberman. Responding to Lieberman, Wolf said not all movies can ennoble the human condition, nor can Congress mandate that the creative community provide “continuously happy endings.”

Wolf later took strong exception to a comment by activist Terry Rakolta — that airing a movie on a hypothetical patricidal murder, discussed by moderator Arthur Miller, would inspire others to kill their parents. Wolf said such polarized positions make it difficult to engage in serious discussions of TV violence.

Sagansky also traded volleys with Lieberman, who accused industry people of “(reacting) defensively to what I’m saying,” Lieberman said.

“Well, you just accused people of lacking any creativity,” Sagansky responded.

Sagansky said many made-for-TV movies will carry the violence warning agreed to by the networks, despite the threat of advertiser defections. “We’re going to make them until it becomes economically impossible to do so,” he said, while citing the more stately telefilms the webs put on that get overlooked in such debates.

The showbiz exex also found an ally in Action for Children’s Television founder Peggy Charren, who attacked activist Rakolta and said she’d be tempted not to air advisories if she knew advertisers would pull out as a result.

“If you can do it with violence, why can’t you do it with other things?” Charren said, maintaining that sex and other issues would follow. Earlier, she drew loud applause for questioning Congress’ role in the debate, saying there were “lots of reasons (the media) should clean up their act,” but not to mollify Congress.

“I think we’re capable of making good decisions,” said Phil Jones, president of Meredith Corp.’s broadcasting group. “That’s what we’re paid to do.”

There was also some finger-pointing: Jones, a broadcaster, cited cable as a principal cause for the increase in televised violence during the past decade; producer Leonard Hill pointed to a double standard between made-for-TV movies and theatrical films.

“We’re all in the same boat,” countered Showtime chairman-CEO Winston (Tony) Cox.

In what might be seen as concrete suggestions to come out of the event, Cannell proposed more communication between producers and network promotion departments, so shows could be plugged based on story points rather than just violence or action scenes.

Another consensus from the academics seemed to be the need both to illustrate consequences of violence and find alternate means of solving conflicts. “It’s better to find ways to promote non-violent solutions,” said child development psychologist Karen Hill-Scott, a consultant to NBC.

Producer Arnold Shapiro and DIC Animation City prez Andy Heyward also asked that those engaged in the debate look at all media, not just television, citing videogames, music videos and album lyrics. Shapiro stressed the value of pro-social programs and said most producers would rather seek their own remedy than allow the government to try and correct the perceived problem. ]

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