A "violence profile" of network programs released here Thursday reported that violence in children's television programming climbed dramatically during the past three years, while prime-time levels remained high but unchanged from earlier in the decade.
"For most viewers, television's mean and dangerous world tends to cultivate a sense of relative danger, mistrust, dependence and--despite its supposedly 'entertaining' nature--alienation and gloom," concluded the report, conducted under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications.
The rate of violent acts in prime time remains a steady five to six each hour, while about half of all major characters are involved in violence and 10% in killing, the study found. Such figures have remained about the same since the researchers compiled their first "violence profile" in 1967, defining "violence" as "overt and explicit physical acts or threats of hurting or killing in any context."
Figures rose dramatically for children watching Saturday morning cartoons, who on the average saw an unparalleled 26.4 violent acts or more each hour, the survey found, compared to 18.6 per hour before 1980.
The researchers blamed the escalating violence in part on the federal government's move in the early 1980s to deregulate the broadcasting industry, but also on the networks' penchant for action-oriented programming.
"We're doing severe damage to our people through television violence," said Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), who introduced the research findings at a Capitol Hill press conference.
Simon is trying to gather support for his Television Violence Act, a bill that would encourage, but not require, the three networks to set common standards on the level of violence in their programming. NBC, CBS and ABC have fought Simon's measure as a threat to their First Amendment rights to determine program content as they see fit.
Spokesmen for the three major networks declined to comment on the findings released Thursday, saying they had not yet seen the study. Network officials in the past have taken issue with the methodology used in compiling the "violence profile" data.
The study found that CBS was the most violent of the three networks in prime time from 1986 to 1989, showing an average of 5.1 violent incidents per hour in the 1986-87 season, 6.9 in 1987-88 and 7.3 in the last TV season. In comparison, NBC showed 4.1 such incidents per prime-time hour in 1986-87, 3.2 in 1987-88 and 5.7 in 1988-89; ABC's violence index was recorded as 6.6, 5.1 and 5.3, respectively.
Nancy Signorielli, an associate professor in the University of Delaware's communications department and co-director of the yearly study, said violence-saturated programming can influence viewers' personalities, particularly among children--deadening compassion for others' suffering, exaggerating fear of other people, and even promoting a greater willingness to be violent themselves.
George Gerbner, a professor in the Annenberg School of Communications and the study's co-director, called violence "a cheap ingredient" used in programs to make a profit with minimum creative and financial investment.
"Violence is imposing itself on producers and directors because it's cheap," Gerbner said, contending that viewers cannot exercise their right to avoid "entertaining murders" and otherwise violence-laden programs.
"You can change the channels, but you do not have a choice. We are born into it," he said. "Like the wallpaper on the wall, you absorb its pattern without even knowing it."
Gerbner noted that children's shows are rife with humorous abuse of characters, the humor serving as "sugar coating" for destructive "messages of power." He emphasized that children watch an average of 27.3 hours of TV each week.
Simon's bill, versions of which have been passed by both the House and Senate, would grant the three networks a limited three-year immunity from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which now prevents network officials from meeting to coordinate broadcasting strategies.
Simon has tried since 1984 to pass the measure. This session of Congress offers the best prospect so far of approval, following the House's 399-18 vote in favor last August.
A potential stumbling block remains, however, in reconciling the Senate and House versions. Before the Senate unanimously passed the bill last May, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was able to amend the scope of the bill to target not only TV violence but also "glorified" depictions of drug use and violent or promiscuous sexuality. The House version only addresses violence.
Spokesmen for NBC, CBS and ABC say Simon's bill threatens their right to set program content without government interference. They point to Simon's veiled threats--that if the bill passes and the networks still refuse to set a policy on TV violence, "other measures" will have to be considered--as a sign of Congress' intent to act as censors of taste.
Broadcasters also fear possible legal retaliation if they act in concert to set policy on children's shows, as has happened in the past, noted Susan Kraus, vice president of media affairs for the National Assn. of Broadcasters.
"The concern we see with the bill (is that) although it provides anti-trust exemption, it can't provide assurances that broadcasters won't be sued on constitutional grounds," Kraus said.
Self-policing is the only responsible policy, she said.
"It is up to each individual station to determine what's appropriate in their community. Different communities can have different standards of acceptability," she said.
"We neither support nor oppose the (Simon) bill," said Beth Comstock, NBC's manager of corporate communications. "NBC feels it's unnecessary because we do a good job of monitoring our programming. . . . We try to keep a balance with all the programming. Excessive violence would not make it on the air."
If Simon's bill passes, however, "We'll attend any meetings as required," she said, noting that NBC research shows no connection between televised violence and people's attitudes.