Special feature: TV Violence: The issue is Politics

The creative community is making conscious efforts to change action sequences so they are less threatening...
January 1, 1996

The creative community is making conscious efforts to change action sequences so they are less threatening

Television is too violent. It’s a mantra repeated over and over in the nineties, by the FCC, politicians, and an increasing number of surveys, including a 1994 poll released by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in which more than 80 percent of the respondents felt that TV violence needed to be curbed. More recently, the UCLA Center for Communication Policy released its own report that went a step further in attacking what it called ‘sinister combat violence’ on TV.

Obviously, reactions to the the prevailing anti-violence sentiment vary. While broadcasters and programmers are sensitive to the issue, many feel they have been unfairly targeted by politicians who may be looking for easy ways to score points among voters.

Others like Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education in Washington D.C., feel that those in the media and entertainment industry are ‘deluding themselves’ about the issue’s importance.

Not true, according to Jeff Segal, president of MCA/Universal Family Entertainment & Universal Cartoon Studios. ‘I wouldn’t call it self-censorship, but we’ve always felt that it’s our responsibility as programmers to have some social conscience, and we’ve always been sensitive to the issue of violence, particularly imitable behavior,’ says Segal, who has helped the studio’s kid division carve out it’s action/comedy niche, with such shows as: Earthworm Jim, featuring a worm that turns into a comic superhero and is based on a video game of the same name; and The Land Before Time, a sequel series based on the Spielberg film of the same name.

‘In the last couple of years we’ve rejected projects that other companies have pursued because we found the element of violence unacceptable,’ says Segal.

Rick Levy, executive vice president, worldwide program sales for Bohbot Entertainment, adds that when it comes to more aggressive programming, there is a ‘conscious effort on the part of the creative community to subtly change action sequences so they are less threatening and repeatable.’ For example, in describing the syndicated Action Man adventure series, Levy explains that ‘when something blows up, rather than showing dead bodies hurtling through the air, the characters are shown running to safety.’ Also, he points out that the show’s characters never use machine guns or extreme physical violence, like kicks to the head.

Nor will you see anything gratuitous on the top-rated Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Peter Dang, president of Saban Children’s Entertainment Group, stresses that the show’s popular martial arts maneuvers ‘are never used against humans, only used against the evil monsters. The Rangers never provoke fighting and violence is never the final solution.’

Even so, Canadian television has begun eliminating 30 seconds of show footage to insert a public service announcement explaining the show’s fantasy element, a pro bono disclaimer already used in the U.S. Similarly, commercials for the notoriously gory video game Mortal Kombat are being more closely monitored by the networks, according to Jonathan Harries, creative director at Hal Riney & Partners in Chicago, the agency that handles the Mortal Kombat account.

Despite Harries’ point that commercials only focus on the game’s ‘excitement’ factor and not the fact that players must kill to win, broadcasters aren’t taking any chances. MTV won’t allow Mortal Kombat spots before 9 p.m. and both MTV and Fox require final approval on storyboards and spots before they air.

But is eliminating killing enough? Not according to Montgomery, who also points to the lack of educational programming available to children. Despite the fact that the Children’s Television Act of 1990 forced stations to broadcast some educational programming each day and the increase in so-called ‘FCC-friendly’ programs like CBS’ Beakman’s World and the syndicated Bill Nye the Science Guy, Montgomery claims that many stations are simply re-labeling long-running shows like The Jetsons and The Flintstones as educational rather than coming up with new programming. The Jetsons, she says, ‘is now labeled by some stations as a show that teaches kids what life will be like in the year 2000.’

FCC chairman Reed Hundt’s campaign to expand children’s television, and the months of debate with broadcasters over interpretations of the Children’s Television Act and what, indeed, constitutes educational television, has helped rekindle public interest in the quality of children’s programming.

In a recent ruling that approved Westinghouse Electric’s proposed $5.4 billion purchase of CBS, the FCC rejected Hundt’s request that Westinghouse stations be required to air at least three hours of children’s educational programming each week. Westinghouse had already voluntarily agreed to expand its children’s programming.

Yet, while The Jetsons’ futuristic message may be a stretch, producers and programmers who already compete with the computer and video game markets also face the challenge of creating shows that are both educational and entertaining – and with with any luck at all, as popular with their young audience as the Power Rangers.

‘It’s all about hiding the broccoli in the peanut butter,’ explains Adrien Seixas, president of Active Entertainment, a domestic syndicator of such kid shows as Jelly Bean Jungle. The show’s producers, Abrams/Gentile Entertainment, sometimes work with child psychologists in creating scripts. ‘Too many producers believe the choice is between syrupy sweet and violent,’ says Seixas. ‘And if violence has proven successful, they’ll go the easy route and repeat it in other shows. Creativity, on the other hand, or story-and-character-driven shows, take more work and adds more to the budget.’

The year old, Colorado-based WAM! (What Adults are Missing) cable network, owned by Encore Media, is attempting to bridge that gap. The channel is designed to be ‘a wholesome and hip viewing alternative’ for ages 8 to16, a pre-MTV age group that vice president of programming, Midge Pierce, says is currently neglected. Programming includes sports, magazine-style and game shows for kids, after-school serial dramas and teen-oriented shows from around the world. Encore is also the primary financier of the teen-written and produced film, Common Bonds, a coming-of-age story that its creators plan to take to the Sundance Film Festival next year.

In addition, seasoned creators of children’s programming, like Hollywood’s Klasky/Csupo, have become increasingly innovative. The creator of Nickelodeon’s successful toddler show, Rugrats, last year completed another animated series, Santo Bugito, which is currently airing on CBS. As its name suggests, the musically-driven animated show features an all-insect cast, an idea, like Rugrats, that came from creator/partner Arlene Klasky’s experience as a mother. She says, ‘Santo Bugito originated from her two young sons, who are both ‘fascinated and repelled by the idea of insects.’

‘We look at programming that’s not necessarily educational, but reflective, intelligent and relevant to kids’ lives,’ explains Cyma Zarghami, senior vice president of programming at Nickelodeon. ‘And we always strive to stay on the pulse of what’s important.’ The network aired The Big Help, a campaign where kids pledge volunteer time in their community and last year drew more than 50 million volunteer hours from around the country. It will also stage Kids Pick the President, a show that will explain the voting process, talk about the candidates and relevant issues, and culminate in an October call-in election. Zarghami says, ‘the issue of violence in the industry is frustrating to those of us who believe we’re being responsible.’

The issue of the V-chip is also troublesome, particularly if, as some fear, the federal government institutes a national rating system in which every TV set sold would have the ability to electronically block out all violent or sexually-oriented programming. In general, broadcasters don’t oppose some type of blocking technology, so long as it requires parents to actually know specific programs they want to block out.

Anything more smacks of censorship, ‘a contradiction of the American culture of openness and granting individuals the responsibility for their own behavior,’ according to Segal. ‘As long as the blocking isn’t government mandated but an individual option that parents can make for themselves, the industry will be less concerned.

As to whether television violence actually affects the behavior of kids, many programmers believe that it can, particularly if children are allowed to watch television unsupervised

However, most seem to agree with Segal, who says: ‘The level of violent behavior seen among our kids should not be laid at the doorstep of the entertainment industry. The proliferation of hand guns and the breakdown of families – these are the issues we should be addressing.’

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