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TV Violence Up in Prime Time, Study Finds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a finding sure to heighten concern from Congress and the public, the level of violent content in prime-time TV programming has increased over the last three years, according to a major study that will be released today.

Researchers from four universities report that the number of prime-time programs containing violence on the broadcast networks rose by 14%--to two of every three shows--from 1994 to 1997, while those on basic cable climbed 10%, to more than three of every five programs.

The National Television Violence Study said the most violent outlets were such pay-cable channels as HBO and Showtime. Ninety-two percent of their prime-time programs contained violence over the three years, the report said.

“There has been an increase in violence in prime time, and violence continues to be glamorized and sanitized on television,” said Joel Federman, director of the Center for Communication and Social Policy at UC Santa Barbara, which coordinated the study. Researchers from the University of North Carolina, the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin also were involved.

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The study, funded by the National Cable Television Assn., was criticized by some industry representatives Wednesday for its methodology, particularly what they said was a broad definition of violence. They noted that a similar study released in January by UCLA concluded that the number of prime-time series that prompted frequent or occasional concerns about violence had dropped by half over the last three years.

The UCLA study--funded by ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox--sought to judge violence in a program’s context, so that if it was deemed to have been handled responsibly, the show was not cited as cause for concern.

The cable-funded study counted the number of violent incidents in a program, defined as any overt depiction of “the use of physical force” or the “credible threat” of such force.

“This is the same flawed methodology that says ‘Schindler’s List’ is the same as ‘Die Hard,’ or that leads, in a previous study, to the 25th anniversary of ‘Laugh-In’ being that year’s most violent TV program,” said Martin D. Franks, senior vice president of CBS. “They’re counting acts of violence without real context. There’s no way they’d be reaching the conclusions they’re reaching if they weren’t.”

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Asked to explain the two different findings, Federman said: “The UCLA study was a qualitative assessment. This study made a quantitative measurement . . . of the amount of violence.”

The researchers, who looked at 6,000 hours of programming on 24 channels from October 1994 to June 1997, said the overall level of violence on television--from Saturday morning children’s cartoons to all other parts of the day--essentially remained steady, increasing from 58% of programs in the 1994-95 season to 61% for the last two years.

The glamorizing of violence was a key issue for the researchers, Federman said. Across the three years of the study, nearly 40% of the violent incidents on television were initiated by “good” characters who were likely to be perceived as attractive role models.

The long-term negative effects of violence were portrayed in only 15% of programs over the three years, the study said.

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While the new results are certain to stir concern in Washington, where lawmakers have always voiced concern about televised mayhem, there may be little more Congress can do at this point to shape what’s on the air. Under pressure from Congress and the White House, the TV industry adopted a parental guidance rating system last year that alerts viewers to programs that might be inappropriate for certain age groups and might contain offensive content.

The ratings take the form of letter labels shown at the beginning of a program, ranging from TV-G (suitable for all ages) to TV-MA (for mature audiences only), plus the additional designations of V (violence), S (sex), L (coarse language) and D (suggestive dialogue).

NBC, alone among the major programming outlets, uses only the age-based ratings, not the content labels.

And last month, the Federal Communications Commission ordered that, by the end of 1999, all new TV sets must be equipped with blocking technology that will enable parents to prevent programs from being shown in their homes that carry ratings they deem objectionable for their children.

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The so-called V-chip will allow parents to block any program, for example, that bears a rating of V, or more broadly, of any program that was rated TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

The study said the addition of the TV rating system has not reduced violence on television or the way it’s portrayed, despite the fact that concerns about exposing children to violence were a major factor in the creation of the TV ratings.


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