Networks cheered by TV violence study

Representatives of the broadcast networks said that they’re initially heartened by findings of a major UCLA Center for Communications Policy study monitoring levels of television violence.

The 181-page report generally found relatively little violence in most primetime series and made-for-TV movies while citing serious concerns regarding theatrical movies shown on television, as well as “sinister combat violence” in certain children’s programs and the emphasis on violence in on-air promotion.

The study concluded that only about 10 of 121 primetime series surveyed during the 1994-95 season raised “serious concerns” regarding violent content. In addition, only 23 of 161 made-for-TV movies (14%) raised such concerns, after past emphasis on true-crime drama had significantly contributed to the furor over televised violence.

By contrast, the study found that 42% of feature films broadcast in primetime (50 of 118 titles) raised concerns, with the researchers suggesting that certain movies – even edited for content – contain so many acts of violence that the networks need to reconsider whether they should be broadcast at all.

Another problem singled out involved on-air promos, which are criticized for their lack of context, the time periods in which they’re broadcast and the emphasis on showing violent scenes. The same applied to ads for theatrical action movies, which load up on violence in an effort to get attention.

“When you have 15 or 30 seconds you can’t say anything about plot,” said study director Jeffrey Cole.

Finally, children’s programming features “a very worrisome trend” in its reliance on shows such as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and “The X-Men” that feature “combat as the theme of the show.” The survey did find more positive signs in some educational programs.

Cole stressed that unlike many past studies that have drawn fire from the TV industry, “This is not a count. … This is an attempt to look at violence in the context in which it occurs.”

For that reason, several shows that do employ violent themes – particularly “NYPD Blue,” “Law & Order” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” – were singled out for dealing with violence laudably by seeking to avoid conflict, showing its consequences and steering clear of gratuitous displays.

Top network execs issued statements responding to the $500,000 survey, the first in a three-year program sponsored by the networks under pressure from political leaders such as Illinois Sen. Paul Simon.

Five of the 10 series mentioned (“MANTIS,” “Fortune Hunter,” “Marker,” “Due South” and “VR. 5”) as raising serious concerns have been canceled, and another (“Tales From the Crypt”) is an off-HBO program that airs only sporadically in primetime. Continuing shows making that list are “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “The X-Files,” “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” – which, Cole acknowledged, may be the one to prompt an “Oh, come on” response.

Violence avoidance

The report does point out as well that some shows, such as “The X-Files,” do “go to great lengths” to reduce or diminish violent elements. Others mentioned as raising frequent issues include reality shows “America’s Most Wanted,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Rescue 911” in their use of re-creations, “The Marshal” and “The Simpsons,” which in its “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon spoofs is accused of using “extraordinarily graphic violence to make a point of satire that is completely over the heads of children.”

Though many of the study’s conclusions would appear to be self-evident, they’ll undoubtedly provide some welcome armament for broadcasters who have maintained that violence has diminished in primetime and that critics in government often don’t watch the programs about which they’re complaining.

The study, in fact, acknowledges that five or 10 years ago the amount of violent series programming “probably would have been larger” and that the areas the networks most control – series and telefilms – “reflect some important positive signs.”

A separate study, commissioned by the cable industry, will be released early next year.

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