Washington may take up TV violence
Despite efforts to quell complaints that they air too much death, blood and mayhem, broadcasters are facing a renewed battle over regulating televised violence.
With a fresh Congress sworn in and a major federal report expected soon on TV gore, pressure is likely to mount to more aggressively stem graphic and gratuitous scenes in shows. One proposal would give regulators powers similar to those they have now to punish indecency and coarse language over the airwaves.
In addition, TV violence is shaping up as a 2008 presidential campaign issue with some of the leading potential candidates already at the forefront of the issue. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has long talked about the effect of gory TV shows and video games on children. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) favors allowing families to buy cable channels separately so they can spurn objectionable shows. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) also have bemoaned TV violence.
“It’s such an easy thing to do, curse Hollywood, curse television,” said Jack Valenti, the former top movie studio lobbyist who is leading an industry initiative to head off government action by teaching parents how to block objectionable TV shows. “It makes headlines.... It looks like they’re doing something and they get political brownie points for it.”
This month, the Parents Television Council stoked the fires by unveiling “Dying to Entertain,” a report that concluded that TV violence had reached epidemic proportions. The media watchdog found that broadcast TV violence rose 75% in six years.
The Federal Communications Commission is expected to fuel the debate further when it soon releases its long-awaited study on the subject, which experts believe will have similar findings. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin gave a preview this month, saying the study’s findings would show “a deep concern among parents and health professionals regarding harm from viewing violence in the media.”
FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, this month warned that the door might be opening to regulation of violent programs.
“In the absence of action from the industry, I think we need to be looking at all our options,” Copps said.
Violence on TV has been a target of activists and politicians dating to the late 1950s, when shows such as “Captain Video” and “The Untouchables” drew criticism for potentially contributing to juvenile delinquency. Today, critics say gore is proliferating partly because of the popularity of medical and crime dramas such as “Nip/Tuck” on FX, “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC and the “CSI” franchise on CBS.
But although the FCC has regulatory power over coarse language and sexual content, it has no clear authority to fine broadcasters for excessive bloodshed and mayhem.
Some in Congress have been eager to change that. In 2004, a bipartisan group of 39 House members -- including the new Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) -- asked the FCC to study the effect of violent programming on children and how its airing might be restricted.
One option pushed by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) would give the FCC the authority to address graphic violence in TV programming, including cable and satellite. His 2005 bill went nowhere, but he plans to reintroduce it. With his own party now in the majority, Rockefeller may get hearings and a vote, further propelling the issue.
“Obviously, the preference would be to have the industry police itself when it comes to excessive violence,” Rockefeller said. “However, if they can’t or won’t do it, then Congress must step in and address this growing societal problem.”
Another reason TV violence may take center stage in the Washington culture wars is that indecency is no longer the hot issue it once was. Last year, Congress boosted indecency fines tenfold, to $325,000 for each violation, helping blunt some of the criticism that Washington wasn’t doing enough. In addition, broadcasters have tied up the indecency issue in court by suing the FCC.
“Of sex, violence and profanity, which do I see as the greatest risk to children?” said Timothy Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. “It is the violence.”
Hollywood saw it coming, which is why Valenti, the well-connected retired head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, was drafted last year to lead a $300-million, 18-month public campaign aimed at defusing the controversy. The program is aimed at teaching parents how to use the V-chip and cable boxes to block objectionable shows, based on their ratings. Ads began airing last summer.
“The only way you can deal with it is to have parents do it in the home,” Valenti said. “You can’t do it by legislative fiat and you can’t do it by regulation, because what is too much violence?”
Defining violence could be as difficult as defining indecency, and it carries additional constitutional hurdles. The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that the FCC could regulate indecency on broadcast TV and radio, but it has not given the agency authority to regulate violent content.
“There’s no reason they couldn’t say, ‘We define indecency as gratuitous violence’ and then go after it,” said Craig R. Smith, director of the Center for First Amendment Studies at Cal State Long Beach. “They’ve resisted it, but there’s a lot of pressure out there.”
Attempts by California and several other states to ban the sale of violent video games to children have been halted by the courts on constitutional grounds. But Rockefeller said the stakes on TV violence were high enough for Washington to attempt legislation.
“One of the most basic steps we can take is to give the FCC authority to regulate violence, and if necessary, the courts will then work out the constitutional issues on a case-by-case basis,” Rockefeller said. “Just sitting on our hands and doing nothing to protect children is not an option.”