Advertisers and affiliates caught in the crossfire.

Steven Bochco’s NYPD Blue was late in coming to San Angelo, Texas, and it did not stay long when it got there.

ABC, seeking to make up for the more than 40 affiliates that have refused to air the controversial program, has offered it to independent stations in those markets. After the local ABC affiliate refused to run NYPD Blue, San Angelo’s Fox network affiliate, KIDY, picked up the program. However, KIDY only aired a few episodes before pressure on local advertisers forced it to cancel the program. The police drama now is unavailable on any channel in San Angelo.

Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association (AFA), claims ABC is losing millions of dollars on a show that has attracted viewers and praise from reviewers but few advertisers. “This program ultimately is going to go because of lack of advertisers,” Wildmon says, “unless ABC wants to keep eating huge losses. Right now, they are not in that kind of financial position.”

Wildmon, who has seen his organization’s supporters more than double in the past year to 1.85 million, believes that “it hasn’t dawned on them” at ABC that opposition to the graphic violence and sex on NYPD Blue will not die down.

Others are less convinced of the power of pressure groups to improve TV. “The only thing that will make a major difference in the content,” says Quentin Schultze, communications professor at Calvin College, “will be changes in the personnel at both the networks and the major production houses.”

The television industry is undergoing major technological and operational changes, leading some to experiment with “pushing the envelope” of what is acceptable to the audience. NYPD Blue has been joined by MTV’s animated Beavis and Butt-head as prime targets of a growing antiviolence movement, which has moved out of living rooms and into the political arena. Activists have become increasingly upset with what they view as excessive televised violence and its links to the real mayhem on the nation’s streets, and they are urging the federal government to become involved. “If the networks aren’t going to take responsibility, then I think it’s logical and wise for Congress to look at it,” says Edward Roden-Lucero, a Catholic priest in San Angelo.

Even cable TV mogul Ted Turner has added violence to his list of causes, telling a congressional subcommittee that TV is the “single most significant factor contributing to violence in America.” Turner said that if the industry does not clean up its act, Congress should write its own antiviolence statute and “ram it down their throats.”

Article continues below
The body count

Barely a week goes by without the announcement of a new poll or study about TV violence and viewer attitudes. USA Today counted, in one week of prime-time network fare, 276 violent incidents, 57 people killed, and 99 people assaulted. The AFA recently calculated a total of 8.64 incidents of violence per hour on the three major networks, ranging from 1.63 per hour on NBC to 4.03 per hour on ABC. And a survey released by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) found Adventures of Brisco County Jr. on the Fox network to be the most violent program, with 117 violent acts per hour.

Public concern over TV violence claimed another television western—CBS’s The Wild, Wild West—a quarter-century ago in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. Over at MTV, executives have already moved the popular Beavis and Butt-head to a later time slot after a mother claimed her baby’s arson death was the result of another child imitating the show’s characters.

If polls accurately reflect popular opinion, the networks are facing a lot of angry people. A Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University poll found 64 percent of adults are offended by TV violence. A Gallup/Family Channel survey found that 79 percent believe violence on television contributes to violent behavior.

Though interest in stemming the tide is on the rise, not everyone agrees on how to measure violence, and not everyone agrees on what kinds of violence should he considered bad violence.

Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) acknowledges disagreement over the degree to which TV violence contributes to real-life violence, but he says there is agreement that some link exists. His colleague Sen. Ernest Hollings (D.-S.C.) has referred to more than 1,000 studies that demonstrate a link between violence in the media and violent behavior in society.

One widely cited study by the University of Washington’s Brandon S. Centerwall examined the effects of the introduction of TV in South Africa, where politics delayed its arrival until 1975. “From 1945 to 1974, the White homicide rate in the United States increased 93 percent. In Canada, the homicide rate increased 92 percent, “he wrote in a recent issue of The Public Interest. “In South Africa, where television was banned, the White homicide rate declined by 7 percent.”

He notes there was a 10- to 15-year lag between the introduction of TV and the doubling of homicide rates, which represents the time needed for the “television generation” to come of age.

Article continues below

Centerwall reports that the three main broadcast networks have studied the matter themselves and found disturbing results, but in an industry where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake with even small changes in advertising, the networks have been reluctant to alter programming.

Talking heads

Simon has proposed an industry-established board to report to the American public on violent programs. The board would have no enforcement authority, he says, therefore avoiding censorship problems.

Simon has not found the industry eager to adopt his proposals. He says, however, that many in Congress want to take more extreme measures.

The politics of TV violence has produced some unusual allies, from Methodist Donald Wildmon to Roman Catholics in San Angelo, from conservative Jesse Helms to liberal Howard Metzenbaum, and from the National Council of Churches to Focus on the Family.

In December, President Bill Clinton weighed in on the debate by urging the television industry to accept responsibility for the effects of its products. “You have the capacity to do good—culturally—to help to change the way we behave, the way we think of ourselves.”

Congress is considering, among other things, proposals for a presidential commission on TV violence and setting up a toll-free number at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to collect complaints. Congress also is considering forcing the FCC to require labels on violent programs and requiring new TV sets to have a computer chip installed that would allow parents to block programs.

Some in Hollywood are ready to fight. NYPD Blue executive producer David Milch says he needs to address certain themes and would kill the show rather than tone it down.

Limited government

Longtime Christian critics of the television industry are cynical about the recent attention the government has focused on this issue. The ability of Congress to regulate television content is limited at best, and technological advances are rapidly eroding what ability remains. (See “Telecomputers and Helpful Chaos,” p. 42.)

Government regulation efforts must, for the most part, go through the FCC. Local affiliates can refuse to air a network program, and the FCC therefore can refuse to renew affiliates’ broadcast licenses if it thinks they are not operating in the public interest. Thus the affiliates—not the national broadcast networks—are the focus of pressure by the FCC and, increasingly, activist groups such as the AFA.

Article continues below

“The FCC set up the system and gave the affiliates the power not to run network programs precisely because they’re the ones ultimately responsible for the community,” says Kristine Karnick, assistant professor of communications at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

Attempts by the FCC to put limits on certain programming inevitably end up in court, and the FCC loses. Censorship, either direct or indirect through enforceable guidelines, is forbidden.

Local affiliates, however, are more sensitive to community pressure and less sensitive to network arm-twisting than in previous decades, says Karnick. The reasons include proliferation of competing stations in individual markets and increasing programming available from nonnetwork sources.

With this setup, the federal government is left with little leverage, and that is just the way many critics want it. “It’s often the threat of censorship that will create action,” says Karnick. “I can’t imagine, though, that the industry can take that seriously, because they know from the past the limits imposed on the FCC.”

Network change of heart?

In December 1992, the three major networks agreed to issue uniform standards restricting the violent content of their programming. Industry apologists this year have touted what they say is a less violent prime-time schedule, and some numbers bear them out.

The AFA found sharply reduced levels of prime-time violence. Though Wildmon says sexual incidents and profanity remained about the same, almost half as many violent incidents occurred last fall compared to last spring.

The change may not last, however, if the cycle of high and low public interest in media violence continues to repeat, warns Schultze, author of The Best Family Videos. He says the situation today with TV violence is similar to a controversy over movies earlier this century. “This is all by and large symbolic posturing, which will have no significant long-run impact on television programming.”

The networks are in a protracted, high-stakes battle with cable channels for audiences, Schultze notes. “It’s nearly impossible, in today’s marketplace, to have significant TV-content regulation.”

Telecomputers And Helpful Chaos

Tomorrow’s revolutionary TV may be a device that functions as both television and computer—appropriately called the telecomputer. The telecomputer could be used for computer mail, watching news reports, producing animated programming of your own, and ordering and viewing Humphrey Bogart classics.

Article continues below

Regulating such a system would be difficult, if not impossible, says George Gilder, author of Life After Television. Expensive network bureaucracies would be things of the past; viewers—not the government, networks, or affiliates—would determine when and what to watch; and Hollywood would lose its near-total domination of program production.

“You’re looking to a possible future with one channel, which has whatever you want on it,” says Gilder. “In other words, all your first choices.”

“Think of it as text, and you’ve got the picture,” says Gilder, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute and a longtime promoter of the information superhighway, which would help pave the way for the telecomputer. “Just as you buy your own books, your own magazines, you receive your own mail, you will receive your own video and multimedia when you want it.”

The system could be created in the next three years by allowing the cable and long-distance telephone industries to interconnect their systems, says Gilder.

He cites the Clinton administration’s desire to foster competition as an obstacle.

Former Reagan science adviser George Keyworth agrees that less government regulation is the answer to spurring the needed technological developments.

Keyworth, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, recently wrote that “by using digital systems we can make it possible for every form of information to be transmitted, stored, processed, and used by exactly the same set of tools.”

The increased speed and choices made available by such a system will dramatically alter the power structure in the television content debate. The more informed consumers become about available choices, the more capable they will be at accessing the good programming.

“It will be a lot cheaper to produce programs than before, and the availability of pom is already a problem,” Gilder says. “It probably can be managed by parents who focus on it, but it still will be a problem. The world is still hovering out there with all of its seductions and offenses, and I don’t think government regulation can stifle it. But you will have much more, much better programming available for every family.”

Parents as watchdogs

As the television industry becomes increasingly complex and viewing choices continue to multiply, observers are split over how—if at all—to control TV content.

Schultze emphasizes the need for Christians to get involved in the industry, citing a demand for good writers. “If you don’t have a good story that holds people,” he says, “you’ve got to rely on violence or nudity or something to try to perk people’s interest.”

Article continues below

Kamick stresses that the role of watchdog over children’s programming should fall to parents, not the government. Inviting government intervention, she says, simply creates an even worse mess.

Simon, however, rejects a laissez-faire approach. “It’s a difficult thing for a parent to monitor, and it’s difficult to know what are the good programs and what are not the good programs,” says Simon. “Second, if Johnny or Jane goes next door to play, you’re a pretty unusual parent if you can control what’s on at the neighbors. And finally, it just totally ignores the fact that we have a lot of single parents who are … just struggling to get by. Having a chance to monitor their children in a significant way is almost beyond their capacity.”

By John Zipperer.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.