As officials have noted, television violence may very well contribute to violence in society, reason enough for greater vigilance and self-policing; however, to pass off existing research as a well-documented fact — equating it with the link between smoking and cancer — shows either a poor understanding of science or a disingenuous understanding of politics.
TONIGHT SHOW” HOST JAY LENO, who phoned in Tuesday regarding another recent column, put the proper spin on Monday’s conference.
TELEVISION EXECUTIVES got a first-hand demonstration Monday of the relationship between TV violence and real-life aggression. After listening to eight hours of babble on the subject, many no doubt felt like beating the snot out of somebody. Clearly, what was supposed to be a “consciousness-raising session” organized by the well-meaning National Council for Families & Television turned into a hackle-raising event. Instead of the hoped-for stirring of collective sentiment about curbing TV violence, it sent a chill through many industryites and put them on their guard. Several disturbing aspects to what was said at the conference need to be analyzed — if only to provide greater understanding, since the industry clearly seems to have a gun (don’t worry, it’s “happy violence”) being held to its head by Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and his colleagues. Simon appears to be earnest and sincere, but his use of alleged public sentiment and social science to support his argument proved deficient on both counts — calling to mind the famous line “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it” vis-a-vis an equally elusive subject, pornography. First, Simon spoke of a “confluence here of public opinion that you have to recognize in this industry.” Later, he referred to a “rising tide of sentiment in the public and Congress” regarding the issue. As near as anyone can tell, the only “rising tide” in the country, aside from the Mississippi River, is public disenchantment with gridlocked Washington and concern regarding violence in society. In short, there’s scant evidence that the public has drawn the same correlation as some members of Congress between TV violence and the risk of being victimized by a carjacker or uzi-wielding psychopath. PEOPLE ARE CONCERNED ABOUT violence, but television would probably not be their initial target. As ABC Entertainment prez Ted Harbert observed during the critics tour, if you ask people whether they think there’s too much violence on television, they’ll say, “Sure,” just as they would if you asked if movie tickets cost too much. They haven’t stopped going to movies, however, nor is TV violence a top-of-mind issue. That tide of sentiment also hasn’t been readily apparent in television’s version of democracy, the Nielsens. A repeat of “Die Hard” recent pulled record Monday-night movie numbers for Fox Broadcasting Co., while ABC’s repeat Sunday of the Dirty Harry epic “The Dead Pool”– singled out for ridicule at Monday’s event — tied for second in last week’s ratings. Simon’s other, more disturbing conclusion stemmed from research on the effects of televised violence. “This is no longer theory,” he said. “The evidence that television violence does harm is now just as overwhelming as the evidence that cigarettes do harm.” Researcher Leonard Eron sounded a similar note earlier in the day, saying there is “a definite” causal link between TV violence and societal violence. To equate social science with chemical science, however, is patently absurd. If two chemicals are combined in a laboratory, they can be precisely measured and analyzed. By contrast, research on the connection between televised and actual violence has difficulty eliminating other factors and is generally based on either questionnaires or observation — both highly subjective criteria. Studies do indicate, for example, that televised violence seems to increase aggression among children immediately after viewing, but it’s difficult to ascertain whether the effects are lasting or a short-term response, or what other variables may contribute to a child’s aggressiveness. Similarly, studies have found that depictions of sexual violence against women tend to make men less sympathetic to rape victims. Again, that remains suspect as long-term phenomena, and one has to remember that what’s being discussed is not behavior but attitudes based on a questionnaire. Someone’s answers about how they think may not be entirely indicative of their actions in the real world.
“They can’t get health care, they can’t get jobs, so they blame ‘Baywatch,’ ” he said, adding that the only thing the networks can actually do within 60 days — as Simon suggested regarding formation of a monitoring committee — is “make an Amy Fisher movie.”
ABC News analyst Jeff Greenfield opened Monday’s seminar by saying “television violence has no constituency.” The First Amendment does, however, and before the V-label, chip or other measures are enacted, someone needs to ask the following questions:
n Should Congress dictate programming content?
n Should television shows, particularly those airing after 9 or 10 p.m., be based solely on what will appeal to children?
n In an expanded TV environment, don’t viewers assume some responsibility for what they and their children watch?
n Doesn’t the ratings system already impose a certain level of popular control over what’s broadcast?
Based on Simon’s speech, the answers may be moot, but it’s hard to believe that the industry — having watched all that television — won’t be aggressive enough to go down fighting.