Changing channels

A FORMER COLLEAGUE RECENTLY SENT a note saying, in essence, that society is going to hell in a handbasket and that our rampantly violent society will increasingly point fingers at violent television programming.

Theletter, from Morrie Gelman, helped crystallize some thoughts that have been bouncing around lately, spurred by local TV’s coverage of the second Rodney King trial (helping sensationalize the case despite past pledges of greater responsibility this time around) and recent studies and lobbying efforts seeking to curb violence on television.

The problem, it seems, is that people who criticize violence on TV so often do such a poor job defining their terms. To say “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” is the most violent program on television — as the National Coalition on Television Violence recently did — is to exhibit no understanding of context or tone in regard to how actions are presented.

In fact, virtually every study I’ve seen on TV violence has been faulty from that perspective, unable to distinguish between Warner Bros. cartoons, period or sci-fi pieces and the kind of gritty, modern-day illustrations that are undoubtedly of greatest concern. As a result, it’s easy to dismiss such complaints as the shrill cries of alarmists, missing the subtler points of the issue.

It seems only logical, for example, that even children can distinguish between clearly make-believe violence (the animated “X-Men” blasting 30 -foot-tall robots) and realistic depictions of murder, rape and other mayhem. Those who can’t are doubtless beyond the point where TV can do much to alleviate the problem, and it seems unfair to base program standards on what may set off the already unhinged.

The greater danger of rampant TV violence would seem to be the desensitizing effect it has on the public. By that standard, the most serious offenders aren’t entertainment programs but reality series and syndicated newsmagazines that routinely seek out grisly murders and convicted psychopaths, turning them into media superstars. In that hysterical world, a simple double-murder warrants barely a notice, unless some odd sexual taboo or a member of the royal family is also involved.

But TV movies truly deserve criticism. The glut of sensational fact-based fare has made a raft of gunfire the norm for settling disputes. A characteristic example was the recent ABC fact-based movie “Between Love and Hate,” which closed with a love-sick, not entirely unsympathetic youth pumping six slugs into his former lover at point-blank range.

TITLES OF TELEFILMS ALONE, in fact, virtually tell the story. CBS has been outspoken about the need to curb TV violence, but its last eight original Tuesday movies have been as follows: “Judgment Day: The John List Story,””I Can Make You Love Me: The Stalking of Laura Black,””Poisoned by Love: The Kern County Murders,””Complex of Fear,””In the Company of Darkness,””Through the Eyes of a Killer,””A Killer Among Friends” and “Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story.”

CBS has done very well during that stretch, raising the argument that the networks are simply giving the public what it wants. “Let the market decide,” after all, is a rallying cry normally invoked by some of the same pundits who decry the morality of programming standards.

At this juncture someone might properly ask if it’s television that’s making guns available to teenagers? No, and that remains a compelling point. Yet despite its attempts to pass along positive social messages, TV nevertheless does more than its share in glorifying gun users by providing such an ample platform for their exploits, both within entertainment programs and on news and pseudonews shows. The argument promises to continue, perhaps more heatedly: Does the media simply hold up a mirror to society or play an active and harmful role, albeit unwittingly, in how people behave? From this vantage point, the pendulum still swings heavily in the mirror direction, but the answers aren’t simple, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

TURNING A PAGE: The resignation of NBC News president Michael Gartner yesterday strikes a blow to all print journalists harboring dreams of horizontal mobility, reinforcing the notion that ink-stained wretches seldom fare very well in broadcast circles.

Gartner’s appointment in 1988 was generally viewed with a sort of perplexed excitement by many critics of broadcast journalism, who had long felt TV news would possess greater credibility if it adhered to the standards of print. Here was a longtime newspaperman from America’s heartland — at the time editor of The Daily Tribune in Ames, Iowa — who wore bow ties and turned up on TV with only the quadrennial frequency of the Iowa caucuses.

The irony is that not since the perceived dismantling of CBS News in the mid- 1980s has one broadcast organization suffered such a critical drubbing and perceived deterioration of journalistic guidelines as NBC News since Gartner took over.

Gartner appeared disarmingly frank when he got the job, sparring with the print press and joking that his “employees,” such as “Today” show host Bryant Gumbel, drew such outlandish salaries by print standards. Asked at a press conference how it felt to make less than Gumbel — who cashed checks totaling $ 7 million over three years — Gartner quipped to a reporter, “I make a lot less than Bryant Gumbel and a lot more than you.”

As recently as January, prior to the “Dateline NBC”-General Motors debacle, Gartner remained defiant in dealings with the press, talking about the profitability of NBC News and touting a dramatic increase in the volume of programming the division was supplying the network. (Granted, a large part of that came from a four-hour overnight news service and the “Oprah”-style daytime show “Faith Daniels,” but, hey, this is television, why sweat the details?)

Gartner’s turbulent history and inevitable departure suggest he was perhaps too willing to accommodate his bosses — failing to fight the ongoing battle between news and the solely profit-oriented divisions of a network. Or, maybe more logically, he simply proved too eager to conform to his new medium’s conventions, until it was unclear where the boundaries lay.

Whatever the reasons, one lesson from Gartner’s legacy is clear — the language of TV journalism remains a perilous mystery to most whose trade involves the printed page.

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