TV Producers Can Blame Themselves for Crackdown

Originally posted: April 28, 2007

Jeffrey M. McCall has authored a soon-to-be-released book, Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences

Jeff McCall 2006.jpgThe Federal Communications Commission has released a report that should finally get the attention of the television industry with regard to the amount and type of violence portrayed in our living rooms. The FCC is recommending that television violence be regulated in much the same way it regulates indecency. In Congress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is ready to lead a bipartisan group to enact the FCC’s recommendations.

This battle has been shaping up for years as broadcasters refused to exercise sensible judgment regarding televised violence. Government concerns began as early as 1961 when FCC chairman Newton Minow blasted broadcasters in his “Vast Wasteland” speech. He said television was characterized by “blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder.” In 1972 Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld claimed before a Senate hearing that a causal relationship existed between televised violence and anti-social behavior. He called for “appropriate and immediate remedial action.” Network executives at that time nodded to Steinfeld and promised their cooperation.

In 2004, bowing to congressional pressure, the FCC finally began the formal study of televised violence and its impact on society, particularly with regard to children. That study led to the recent report. A formal FCC study should have been signal enough to broadcasters that televised violence was a serious concern. Broadcasters instead ignored the obvious signal and proceeded to program even more extreme violence. Data released this year by the Parents Television Council shows that violence on television continues to increase — and in virtually all time slots. In addition, violent scenes in prime time now increasingly have a sexual component.

McCall Book Viewer Discretion.jpgMedia industry executives have responded to the FCC report by acting shocked and innocent, trotting out the same tired, flimsy arguments that blame everybody except themselves. They blame parents for not controlling what their kids watch, thus sacrificing the many kids whose parents aren’t as responsible as they should be. The media execs assure us that blocking devices, V-chips and ratings systems can solve the problem, ignoring the evidence that these systems have been busts.

Sadly, the media blame the public, claiming that producers simply give the audience what it wants. This argument overlooks the key role that producers play in shaping that audience demand. Viewers do share some responsibility for what gets programmed. Network executives, however, ultimately make the decisions for what is appropriate, and their decisions serve to condition the public as to what appropriate standards are.

Television executives will portray themselves as First Amendment defenders as they fight the coming FCC regulatory initiatives. That approach will look better from a PR standpoint than just admitting they want to make as much money as possible by flooding television with violent content.

Regulating violent content will be tricky and difficult, but as FCC commissioner Michael Copps said, that difficulty “should not take this off the table.” The government already has in place multiple regulations that control broadcast content and have passed court tests — such as those covering kids’ television, political broadcasting, advertising, hoax announcements and indecent content. The courts have clearly said that the broadcast media are not to be considered a First Amendment free-for-all. Carefully defined controls on violent content should well pass muster when the eventual court challenges are made.

TV Set Dart.jpgBeyond the legal arguments, however, broadcasters should make a distinction between what they have a constitutional right to do and what is the right thing to do. A society is defined by the stories it tells. Television executives can play a positive role in that definition. Excessive and unnecessary violence can be excluded from the airwaves, especially when younger viewers are likely. Those dramas for which violence is a relevant component can be delivered in a sensible context and with appropriate tact.

The entertainment community surely has talented writers and executives capable of making these decisions. Had there been more responsible broadcast leadership over the years, the industry wouldn’t now be faced with the prospect of congressionally mandated FCC regulation of violent content.

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