December 26, 2005

Violence on the Screen

Posted by Amanda Toering
Monday October 24th 2005, 11:20 am
Filed under: PTC, TV

The furor over The Nipple fanned the flames of “anti-indecency” activists like the Parents Television Council and American Family Association. Any whiff of implied sexuality makes the evangelicals squirm these days. Less attention has been given to violence on TV — which the FCC does not currently regulate. The nanny brigade is headed in that direction, however, trying to expand the definition of what’s “indecent” from Janet Jackson’s mammary glands to CSI’s gore.

On the one hand, the PTC decries fictionalized violence in video games. On the other, it mourns the acknowledgement of the very real, very heart-wrenching violence being committed on a daily basis in Iraq.

Is sexual prudery responsible for increased depictions of violence on TV? The PTC’s own Melissa Caldwell seems to imply just that.

From an article in the Philly Inquirer:

But CBS’s Vegas crime-scene geeks have plenty of company. In the debut of the network’s new drama Criminal Minds, for instance, a woman - bound, gagged and caged - frantically struggles as her rapist/serial-killer captor jabs at her bloody fingertips with pincers.

Why are TV producers suddenly so enamored of hard-core gore? They may be sublimating their frustrated sex drive.

“In the post-Janet Jackson media environment, the networks and TV producers and writers are wary of pushing the content envelope as aggressively as they have with regard to sexual content,” said Melissa Caldwell, director of research for the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group. “… As the law stands now, the [Federal Communications Commission] has no authority over violent content.”

The commission says it doesn’t normally track violence complaints.

Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller (D., W.Va.) has introduced a bill that would give the commission jurisdiction over egregiously violent displays.

“There’s no question that violence in television programming continues to dramatically increase,” the senator wrote in an e-mail. “More and more, broadcasters are looking for ways to increase ratings and, unfortunately, increasing violent content seems to be their answer.”

Until now, politicians have focused most of their rhetoric and concern about media violence on video games, because of their youth appeal. In this era of an Xbox in every kid’s bedroom, these kill-’em-all games have set a new standard for graphic and casually cruel violence.

Combine that with increasingly cutthroat movies, DVDs and TV shows, and it’s clear that today’s young people are being exposed to unprecedented levels of violence.

What effect does all this savagery have on the audience?

“It makes all of us fearful,” said Scott Poland, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University. As administrator of a national task force, he has responded to 11 school shooting incidents, from Columbine to Red Lake, Minn. “We’d all like to believe that man is basically good, but with all the crime and violence depicted, it gets harder and harder to hold onto that viewpoint.”

Are TV shows creating a climate of fear, or are they reflecting one that already exists?

“Today’s television audiences have witnessed… the events surrounding 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Oklahoma City bombing and a myriad of natural disasters,” wrote Charlton McIlwain, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Culture and Communication, in an e-mail.

“We’ve seen the… real carnage inflicted on the victims of such violence. And because of the seemingly daily communication of terror threats, we’re constantly reminded that we ourselves may be next.”

One of the popular media’s glaring distortions is its grossly exaggerated incidence of serial killing. If you judge by books, TV and movies, approximately one out of every three people is a budding Ted Bundy. The fiends figure prominently in prime-time shows from CBS’s Cold Case to ABC’s Night Stalker, and in a coming two-part crossover episode of the NY and Miami franchises of CSI.

“That scares the hell out of us - the idea of being killed randomly by someone we don’t even know,” Poland said. “That doesn’t fit the real pattern of violence in America where serial killers are exceedingly rare. But it sells books.”

People in the TV industry maintain that this season is merely business is usual.

“When I was a kid there was violence on TV and there’s violence now,” said Nick Santora, a writer-producer for Fox’s Prison Break. “In fact it’s less gratuitous now. Physical confrontations are story-driven. They’re not there just for shock value.”

Asked about the scene on his show where the hero’s toes are chopped off by a convict with a pair of garden shears, Santora responded:

“We’re the least violent prison show you could imagine. Ninety percent of our show is cerebral, exciting and caperesque. And every once in a while we have to hurt somebody.”

Even Santora admits that when it comes to violence, TV producers are operating without clear limits. “The standards are so ambiguous as to not give you much of a guideline, so often you go by instinct,” he said.

The TV and film industries are self-governed through content-ratings systems. And those classifications tend to be vague and inconsistent.

Graphic shows have prevailed because they’re highly rated. They’re complex, interesting, and more stimulating than “Highway to Heaven.”

Audiences tell broadcasters what they like, and broadcasters respond.

And by the way — in case you’re wondering whether all the CSI gore is making us more prone to butchery (which is what the cultural watchdogs will surely claim) — the US Department of Justice reports that violent crime rates have reached an all-time low.

2 Comments so far

Senator Jay Rockefeller’s bill would not only regulate the portrayal of violence on broadcast TV, but also on cable and satellite.

Comment by Eric Jaffa 10.24.05 @ 11:39 am

I am Nick Santora, the writer-producer of the televison show Prison Break who is quoted in this article. I am also an attorney - I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1996. The bottom line is simple - EVERY indecency statute is, by definition, unconstitutional. A statute based on terminology (ie, “indecency”) that cannot be defined with ANY specificity is defective on its face and, hence, cannot stand as law. US Citizens have the ultimate weapon against programming that they feel crosses their own moral/ethical lines in the sand . . . a remote control. Be an adult, change the channel, and stop infantalizing yourself by asking government officials to raise your own children. As more politicians speak of further regulating the air waves with unconstitutional statutes, including pay services that people CHOOSE to bring into their homes like cable and sattelite radio, we begin down a slippery slope that we will find quite difficult to ever climb up again.

Comment by Nick Santora 10.26.05 @ 8:59 am

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