Media Beat, Sep. 28, 1994
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Surprising Reasons for Violence on the Screen
Why is American television so violent?
Forty years after Sen. Estes Kefauver convened the first congressional hearings on the subject, the easy answer is that Americans want to see a lot of violence on the tube. Easy, but erroneous.
The idea that viewers just get what they want "is the biggest fallacy in our business," says maverick TV journalist Linda Ellerbee. "That's the argument that people on our side use to put dreck on the air... The American public didn't ask for trash television. They'll watch it the same way we go out and watch a fire."
In fact, violent TV shows do not draw the biggest audiences. The trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable noted in 1993 that "the most popular programming is hardly violent, as anyone with a passing knowledge of Nielsen ratings will tell you."
So how come, if you flip the dial tonight, you're likely to see so much gratuitous violence on programs ranging from "real life" cop shows to made-for-TV movies and weekly series? During the past ten years, well over half of prime-time programs have been suffused with violence. Why?
The surprising truth is that violent TV programs are not more popular but they are more profitable. Much more. Two big reasons: They're cheaper to make, and they're hot export items.
Top creative talent costs money. Well-written scripts, adept acting and sensitive editing are likely to be expensive. It's cheaper to blow up cars in chase scenes and pay for fake blood.
Often, in the United States, the murder-and-mayhem formula does poorly at the box office and in the ratings. However, even if the violent products don't sell very well here, that's just a start.
"The profitable marketing of film and TV programs is increasingly dependent on reaching a global audience," explains longtime researcher George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communications based in Philadelphia.
Investors find that violent screen exports are apt to rake in profits overseas. There's no problem with cross-cultural gaps; whatever the country, viewers get the point. "Everyone understands an action movie," says the producer of the "Die Hard 2" film, in which 264 people get killed. "If I tell a joke, you may not get it, but if a bullet goes through the window, we all know how to hit the floor, no matter the language."
The "Die Hard 2" producer, Larry Gordon, says that syndication firms want "action" -- a euphemism for violence -- because it "travels well around the world."
Gerbner acknowledges that "there is blood in fairy tales, gore in mythology, murder in Shakespeare. But not all violence is alike." In Televisionland USA, "happy violence" dominates- "produced on the dramatic assembly line...cool, swift, painless and often spectacular, designed not to upset but to deliver the audience to the next commercial in a mood to buy."
Due to public outcries, violence on dramatic network TV programs has dipped a bit during the last three years. Meanwhile, it has escalated on syndicated "real" crime shows.
TV violence remains much more pervasive now than it was back in 1954, when Sen. Kefauver chaired hearings of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. And today, politicians and commentators spend a lot more time decrying it.
But the issue is often posed in unhelpful terms: Do violent TV shows and movies lead to high rates of murder, rape and other violent crime? Should Congress legislate restrictions on the violent content of television?
While researchers debate its impacts, few doubt that routine TV violence -- particularly the type that presents violent retribution as a pain-free solution to problems -- is corrosive to our society.
At the same time, scapegoating television for the crime problem helps elected officials avoid more basic factors -- such as the day-in day-out institutionalized violence of poverty and the inadequate funding for education, housing and jobs.
As for government action against the TV industry, the remedy is not content restrictions. Instead, we need antitrust challenges to the fewer and fewer mega-companies that control more and more of the "entertainment" to be found on TV, in video stores and inside theaters.
"The role of Congress, if any," Gerbner says, "is to turn its antitrust and civil rights oversight on to the centralized and globalized industrial structures and marketing strategies that impose violence on creative people and foist it on the children of the world."
The fight that needs to be waged is an anti-censorship battle. The violent drivel that fills up screens keeps crowding out better material.
Until we confront the near-monopoly power to saturate the media landscape with mindless violence, the phony blood will keep flowing in torrents, and so will the profits.