Ever since the day five years ago when Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) turned on a hotel television and saw a chain saw tearing through a torso, he has been on a personal crusade to reduce the level of violence on television.
“I’m old enough to know it’s not real, but it still bothered me that night,” Simon recalls. “And then I wondered, what happens to a 10-year-old or 12-year-old who watches this?”
His crusade achieved an important victory Saturday when President Bush signed legislation paving the way for the television industry to set standards on violent programming.
The new law, contained inside unrelated legislation, is an unusual measure. For one thing, it does not require TV programmers to take any action. Instead, it simply grants the networks and other broadcasters and cable operators immunity from federal antitrust prosecution should they decide to meet and discuss the issue of violence on television.
But despite years of discussion, public hearings and research about the issue, no one is quite sure whether broadcasters will respond to Congress’ not-so-subtle hint, or indeed, whether the law will have any effect at all.
“It is a well-intentioned effort on Congress’ part,” said Martin Franks, a CBS vice president in Washington. “But this is a problem that is not easily solved.”
Public watchdog groups say that while the three major television networks have somewhat lowered the level of violence in prime time in recent years, television is still twice as violent now as it was only 10 years ago.
Brian Sullivan of the National Coalition on Television Violence said that prime-time programming averaged 9 to 10 violent acts per hour in the 1989-90 season, up from 4 to 5 violent acts in the 1980-81 season.
Researchers differ over whether watching violence on television is harmful to viewers, either adults or children. Some studies have suggested that for viewers who are “vulnerable,” watching violence on television may stimulate violent behavior or have other undesirable results. A task force of the American Psychological Assn. is drafting a report that concludes that “viewing violence on television is causally associated with increases in aggressive attitudes and aggressive values and behavior.”
The television networks and the American Civil Liberties Union insist, however, that the research is equivocal.
Simon has no doubt. “There is no question about the harm. The evidence is just overwhelming. The question is what we do about it,” he stressed last week in a telephone interview.
The television industry has been uncertain about how to respond to Simon’s legislation. Caught in a bind between serving the public interest and heeding competitive and First Amendment impulses, industry organizations have neither supported nor opposed his bill and largely have been noncommittal about what they would do once enacted.
The Simon bill “is clearly offensive to the spirit of the First Amendment,” Barry W. Lynn, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said in testimony before Congress this summer. “It would be terribly unwise, and harmful to the maintenance of an open society, to allow government to influence the content of speech based on theoretical speculation and ambiguous data.”
One of the reasons that some TV programmers, especially pay-cable networks and independent stations, oppose industry rules is that sexually explicit and violent material gives them a competitive advantage over the more conservative ABC, CBS and NBC. And the networks fear irritating television producers and filmmakers who complain when their work is “censored.” “On the one hand, the creative community views us as overly stodgy. On the other hand, the public policy community sees us as overly permissive,” complained CBS’ Franks.
If the industry fails to take advantage of the congressional exemption, Simon vows, he will call them into his office “and see if we can get the ball rolling.”