A disconnect between violence and television

PASADENA, Calif —

If there’s any soul-searching among top television executives about onscreen violence contributing to real-life tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting, it isn’t readily apparent.

All say the horrors of Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, rocked them. But during a series of meetings with reporters here over the last 10 days, none offered concrete examples of how it is changing what they put on the air, or if that is necessary.

“I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not sure you can make the leap (that) a show about serial killers has caused the sort of problems with violence in our country,” said Robert Greenblatt, who put “Dexter” on the air when he ran the pay cable TV network Showtime and is now overseeing development of a series on the notorious creep Hannibal Lecter for NBC. “There are many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns.”

All of those points are being considered by Vice President Joe Biden as he prepares to make recommendations Tuesday to President Barack Obama on ways to curb violence. When entertainment executives met with Biden in Washington on Friday, makers of blood-spurting video games like “Call of Duty” and “Mortal Kombat” dominated attention. In theaters, “Texas Chainsaw 3-D” dominated box office receipts during its first week.

Television’s biggest influence is its omnipresence; the average American watches more than four hours of television a day.

In recent days, only FX President John Landgraf said he was in favor of further study about any correlation between entertainment and real violence. Previous studies have been mixed.

Landgraf has sons aged 15, 12 and 9 and said he doesn’t let them play video games in which the player is shooting.

Everything the entertainment industry does should be fair game in a discussion about violence, he said. But he pointed out that the zombie series “Walking Dead” and brutally violent “Sons of Anarchy” are both very popular in Britain and that country has far fewer gun murders than the United States. The availability of powerful assault weapons and ammunition are most responsible for the difference, he said.

The Newtown shooting was heartbreaking, said Paul Lee, ABC entertainment president. “We welcome the conversation as to how we as a culture can make sure that we don’t let these events happen again,” he said.

He said ABC has strong standards for what it broadcasts, stronger than its competitors.

“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “We are storytellers. We have to tell stories that are vibrant and passionate, but we want to make sure that the stories that we tell are done with integrity, you know, there’s no gratuitous action that goes out there, that it’s driven through the stories and the characters, and that we have a moral compass in what we do.”

The appetite for “Walking Dead” and “Texas Chainsaw 3-D” among young viewers is not lost on any TV executive, and bottom line pressure speaks most loudly to them. Broadcast networks feel a particular need to push the envelope when they see cable programs making noise with an ability to show more explicit scenes.

The same week that Lee talked about ABC’s standards, the network’s hit “Scandal” had a scene depicting waterboarding.

Fox has a highly anticipated series due later this month, “The Following,” about a serial killer who recruits deadly disciples, and its gruesome scenes include a woman who commits suicide by gouging her eye and piercing her skull with an ice pick, and a man set on fire at a coffee stand.

Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment chairman, said that given all of the media choices, the impact on real life is a broad and complex conversation. “It trivializes it to try and link it to television, or broadcast television in particular,” he said.

“Part of entertainment, part of what we do on television, is to provide escapism,” Reilly said. “Escapism comes in many forms. It could be laughter. It could be fantasy. It is also your worst nightmare come to life. And it makes our palms sweat and it moves us emotionally and puts us on the edge of the seat. We are engrossed in it and we forget ourselves for an hour.”

When a network is putting a thriller on the air, it has to be able to compete on an intensity level, he said.

Being publicly questioned about the level of violence on the air clearly annoyed Reilly, however. Asked if Fox had made any changes to the promotion or content of “The Following” after the Newtown school shooting last month, he snapped, “No,” and said he wouldn’t address any more questions on the topic.

He was wrong, by the way: Fox later said it had replaced a billboard showing a woman with an ice pick with an image of series star Kevin Bacon, and combed its on-air promos to make sure there was no gunplay.

Reilly wasn’t alone in his impatience. CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler also called a halt to questions on the topic Saturday after being asked several. Tassler was unhappy with NBC’s Greenblatt, who said that CBS’ “Criminal Minds” was worse than “Dexter” ever was in terms of content. She said it was a mistake to allow the discussion “devolve into my show versus your show.”

CBS is on pace to be the nation’s most-watched television network for the 10th time in 11 years, and has done so with a huge fictional body count. The network’s prime-time schedule is dominated by procedurals that usually involve solving violent crimes. Tassler said CBS would begin promoting on the Super Bowl a summer series based on a Stephen King book about a town trapped under an invisible dome, the promo clip shown to reporters included drawings of body parts dropping from the sky, a pacemaker bursting out of a man’s chest and a bloody hammer being cleaned in a sink.

NBC illustrated a similar disconnect. As its executives said NBC wasn’t a “shoot ‘em up” network, a highlight reel of “Revolution” was shown that included a swordfight, a standoff between two men with guns, a gunfight and a building blown up with a body flying through the air.

Tassler said CBS will show “awareness and sensitivity” as it moves the process of making pilots and selecting series that will run on the network in coming years.

“Nothing that is on the air is inappropriate,” she said. “And our attention is always to continue to be a broadcaster that creates content for a vast, diverse audience.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Author Infomation

David Bauder
David Bauder
  • -2

    Frungy

    Barking up the wrong tree. Research shows that "entertainment" and "fantasy" actually reduces the incidence of real violence. The first research on this topic was done after false claims that porn, particularly porn that simulated violence against women, resulted in increased rape rates, but despite people who watched this sort of porn having a pre-existing fetish for this type of activity the research showed that there was no link between violent porn and increased rape rates, and in fact the evidence showed that the pornography reduced the incidence of actual sexual violence. Research into violence in video games and violence in real life showed similar results, that it has no effect or suppresses violent tendencies. Doubtless research into TV violence and real life violence will show similar results.

    Why? Well the current leading theory is that people know it is a fantasy and it provides an outlet for their anti-social behaviour while placing it and keeping it firmly in the context of fantasy. One might fantasize about having a bazooka mounted on the back of your car and blowing away drivers who tailgate you, and one might even play a computer game or watch a movie about it and chuckle with delight when the tailgater is blown up... but that in no way connects with your daily drive to work, except in so far as you can mentally play back portions of the movie and derive vicarious relief from the images which can help reduce the stress of the drive.

    The real issue is the one identified by the Micheal Moore in his recent public statement. He pointed out that the U.S. has no problem killing people overseas, that the school curriculum is loaded with material justifying the unjustifiable like trying to whitewash Vietnam and the civilian bombings in WW2, and that the result is a population who has been indoctrinated with the idea that violence is an acceptable way of asserting dominance. Trying to pin the blame on TV shows and video games is the wrong track. American culture is the problem.

  • -1

    Probie

    Oh shut up! If there is a connection, it's a very small one. And if you want to get into reasons why people commit violence, you're going to have to ban religion first of all.

    Also, anyone who watches a TV show or whatever and then does something violent, is crazy.

    The Son of Sam said his neighbors dog told him to kill. Where is the debate about evil dogs?

  • 0

    Yardley

    American culture is the problem.

    Really? You might want to think about that a bit more. It's a global culture of violence, isn't it?

  • -1

    CrisGerSan

    Sorry, there IS a very REAL connection and cause and effect between entertainment and actual violence. It is both easy to understand for anyone with a rational mind free of preconceived liberalist assumptions and also proven by a mountain of research most of it techincal. There is every reason to see that modern American society is hugely addicted to violence in TV and movies and now computer games thus trivializing it and making it unreal to people who use it. There are no words or excuses that can explain this away no matter how hard any post writer or author or in this case new reporter may try to trivialize this connection. It is there. It is real. We are all paying and now we see it happening in Japan too which is very sad to see. Don't be fooled by anyone. It is a great danger and must be stopped. Free speech is NO excuse. And Hollywood has no conscience at all, None.

  • -1

    CrisGerSan

    And YES American culture or lack of it is a HUGE problem as well. I abhor and detest modern American standard culture and media, and loath what they say, do and promote. It is horrible to see it being copied and imitated in Japan and other countries, and i really really hope that people around the world will get over their interest in modern american style and get back to their own cultures. We lost ours after the Second World War and have been doing down since. Please do NOT be like us.

  • -2

    ChibaChick

    I do think there is a (..n as yet unproven) connection between violence on the screen and violent behaviour, BUT I agree it is not as simple as that. The majority of people see and play the same violence as these psychopaths and yet dont turn into killers, so there has to be other factors at play here - nature, nurture (or lack thereof) etc etc.

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