With the specter of government action looming, leading TV exex defended their industry Tuesday against charges that there is too much violence on television.
The scene was a Senate hearing room, where angry lawmakers said they want action, not rhetoric, about this longstanding problem.
The point was underscored by the occasion’s anniversary — 32 years to the day of the first congressional hearing on TV violence.
“There needs to be a higher standard than what makes money,” said Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), judiciary subcommittee co-chairman, at the second in a series of hearings.
There is a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill, fueled by the impending Dec. 1 expiration of legislation waiving antitrust laws to allow the industry to find solutions to TV violence.
According to Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Pictures Television Group, the industry in some cases is asked to rebut baffling claims.
He said one group of critics named “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” of which he was a co-producer, the most violent prime time show last fall.
“This, quite frankly, stunned us and is flatly wrong,” he said.
He said the show has been praised for historical depictions of the early 20th century by institutions ranging from the Boy Scouts and Children’s Television Workshop to the University of South Carolina and United Federation of Teachers in New York.
Some studies of TV violence “simplistically and mechanically add up the number of allegedly violent acts without reference to the overall context of the program or the nature of the acts themselves,” McCluggage said.
Simon voiced some optimism, pointing to steps taken in programs to show less smoking, drinking and to depict minorities in a more positive light. “The same thing can be done with violence,” he said.
The hearing’s co-chairman, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), was less generous. “If the television industry cannot effectively regulate itself — and so far, in my judgment, it has not — Congress should regulate the industry.”
According to Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti, the First Amendment would frustrate any such government attempts.
“None of the top 25 most popular prime time TV shows can be described as violent, although the self-anointed experts would label them so,” Valenti said. But he agreed that “trying to shrink gratuitous violence wherever it is on TV is a worthy and even achievable aim.”
Valenti defended the industry’s record, but agreed that there are some “bad neighbors” in the entertainment community.
Still, he was not about to let TV take the blame for society’s ills. “I tell you frankly, I refuse to believe most of the cruelties visited on this republic can be blamed on television.”
McCluggage, however, said the industry “would not try to hide behind the First Amendment or place all of the blame on our violent society.”
Also testifying were Leslie Moonves, president of Lorimar Television Co., and Ned Nalle, Universal TV exec VP. They elaborated on their shows that don’t promote violence and pointed out examples of social responsibility.
Hollywood consciously reduced the incidence of cigarette smoking in the 1980s and recently began deglamorizing alcohol and drug use, they said.
Simon replied, “There is a failure in your statement to recognize we do have a major problem.”
Moonves refuted Simon’s claim of TV violence as a vehicle to profits. “There’s far more money to be made from sitcoms,” Moonves said.
Simon likened the TV industry’s refusal to concede that vid violence contributes to actual violence to the cigarette industry’s position on smoking and cancer.
Valenti said he would meet with Hollywood talent unions and others in advance of a conference Aug. 2 in Los Angeles featuring TV, cable and film executives.
And he praised Congress for pressuring the industry.
“Why haven’t we acted before? I guess we only act in a crisis,” Valenti said.