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FCC Report -- Violence on TV

May 20, 2007

Violence on television is alive and well, just as it is in the world we live in. That it has come under attack recently should not be a surprise, given the political action in the aftermath of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" that gave encouragement to the media police.

The question remains what to do about it, if anything.

It's a difficult issue, in no small part because it has become politicized. On one hand, there is no question that some level of violence on TV is protected free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution. On the other hand, the government has the recognized power to limit the manner in which that free speech is expressed if it would otherwise cause harm to the public.

It's not just broadcast programming that's under the microscope; cable and satellite programming has also come under government scrutiny.

Violence is part of human nature--unfortunately. It has been with us throughout history, and continues through today in our penchant for resolving differences through force, whether on a personal or national level. Some of our most popular spectator sports are inherently violent--boxing and wrestling are obvious, but ice hockey and football also come to mind. Some of the most vocal opponents of violence on TV complain about the odd violent commercial or sexual content that might pop up during a family viewing of the Superbowl. Those brawny jocks in helmets and padding are not out there exercising their debating or negotiating skills to determine the winner.

Conflict is an essential part of story-telling. If there is no conflict, there is no story. This is not new to TV. Literature has always contained conflict--much of it violent. You needn't look further than the plays of William Shakespeare, mandatory reading for virtually all students.

Which brings us back to government regulation of violence on TV. As the policy-makers have acknowledged, this initiative is following the template used for the regulation of sexual content and language on TV. Those taboos were banished to post-prime-time viewing (i.e. after 10 p.m.).

For violence, one FCC suggestion is to ban violence from a new "family hour," between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., which would be reserved for programs "suitable for children."

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, what sort of violent programming is the government talking about?

FCC Commissioner Adelstein states that "The top ten highest rated broadcast programs consistently have programs with violent content leading the pack." He and his staff looked at a week's worth of TV and came up with a list of shows with violent content. Among others: 24, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, NCIS, Crossing Jordan, CSI, Grey's Anatomy, Ghost Whisperer, Smallville, Cops, and Desperate Housewives.

It's one thing to say we need to keep violence off the TV when children will be watching, but another thing for politicians to order America's prime-time favorites into competition with Leno and Letterman.

So what are they doing?

Well, several years ago Congress decided to let the FCC decide, and asked the Commission to send them a report examining the problem, and proposing a definition of the type of violent content that children should not see (and the regulation thereof would stand up to a court challenge). The FCC finally released its Report on April 25, but as FCC Commissioner Adelstein points out in his statement, the Report punts and tells Congress that it could come up with such a definition.

Congress' response: The Senate scheduled a hearing on Media Violence for this past Thursday, but then canceled.

Hot potato!

What did the FCC Report (Violent Television Programming And Its Impact On Children) say? (from the press release)

The Commission:

  • agrees with the views expressed by the Surgeon General, and finds that, on balance, research provides strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children, at least in the short term.
  • notes that while viewer-initiated blocking and mandatory ratings would impose lesser burdens on protected speech, and is skeptical that they will fully serve the government's interests in promoting parental supervision and protecting the well-being of minors.
  • believes that the V-chip is of limited effectiveness in protecting children from violent television content.
  • observes that cable operator-provided advanced parental controls do not appear to be available on a sufficient number of cable-connected television sets to be considered an effective solution at this time.
  • believes that further action to enable viewer-initiated blocking of violent television content would serve the government's interests in protecting the well-being of children and facilitating parental supervision and would be reasonably likely to be upheld as constitutional.
  • finds that studies and surveys demonstrate that the voluntaryTV ratings system is of limited effectiveness in protecting children from violent television content.
  • believes that Congress could develop an appropriate definition of excessively violent programming, but such language needs to be narrowly tailored and in conformance with judicial precedent.
  • suggests that industry could on its own initiative commit itself to reducing the amount of excessively violent programming viewed by children (e.g., broadcasters could adopt a family hour at the beginning of prime time, during which they decline to air violent content).
  • observes that multichannel video programming providers (MVPDs) could provide consumers greater choice in how they purchase their programming so that they could avoid violent programming. (e.g., an a la carte regime would enable viewers to buy their television channels individually or in smaller bundles).
  • finds that Congress could implement a time channeling solution and/or mandate some other form of consumer choice in obtaining video programming, such as the provision by MVPDs of video channels provided on family tiers or on an a la carte basis (e.g., channel blocking and reimbursement).

(Read the full report. It also contains all separate Commissioner statements.)

The studies cited by the report are not as absolute about the impact of media violence on children as the conclusions of the Commissioners would seem to indicate. But the pressure is there to solve the "problem."

It is interesting that the government acted to mitigate the impact of TV violence on children in the late 1990s. At that time, legislation was enacted to require that all new TVs (from 2000) contain a V-chip that enabled parents to control what types of programming could be displayed on individual TVs. To make this work, the TV industry created a rating system, with different ratings for age-specific suitability, and different types of potentially objectionable content (sexual, language, different types of violence, etc.).

The proponents of new regulation have proclaimed those efforts a failure. Why?

The major reason seems to be that parents must be actively involved, and must set their televisions to block the types of programming they don't want their children to see. The Report also says only about half of TVs now have that technology (but with the digital transition coming up, we can expect many people will be replacing their old pre-2000 analog TVs with new digital sets).

Cable systems have advanced blocking systems, but these only work for people who have digital cable service, but again, with the transition ending, cable systems are converting their subscribers to digital.

The big hurdle appears to be parental ignorance or apathy. Studies cited in the Report indicate that very few parents use the V-chip, either because they don't know they have it or they cannot figure out how to use it, notwithstanding the detailed instructions included in the operating manuals that came with their TV (most people do not read these).

It is in this light that the proposal to ship TVs only capable of displaying "TV-G" rated programming was born. The TVs could be reset or reprogrammed, but then everyone buying a TV would have to plow through their operating manual. More likely, they would return the "defective" TV to the store. An unworkable solution, of course.

It was presented by Commissioner Adelstein in his statement that accompanied the FCC's Report. A frustrated parent, he was also frustrated by the Report's lack of responsiveness to the issues. The Report simple does not address the hard questions.

If you read the Report, you may get bogged down. Adelstein's seven-page statement is much better, even if you don't agree with him.

I agree that parents must look to themselves first.

Adelstein: "It is clear that parents are the first, last and best line of defense against all forms of objectionable content. Speaking as a parent, the problem is that in today's media landscape, families have to navigate through a sea of violence. Making a bad situation worse, most parents don't know about the navigational tools available to them, so they are like 17th Century sailors subject to the whims of an angry sea when they could be using more modern techniques."

And: "In the case of violence, I certainly would not want my children watching the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, but I doubt any court would uphold us banning it during evening hours. I do not even like my kids watching a cartoon of an anvil falling on the coyote's head, but I do not think any court would let us ban it."

Although he comes across as a little paranoid:

"Like most parents with adolescent children, I live in perpetual fear of the shows and commercials to which my son or daughter will be exposed to on any given evening.

"Whether it is a primetime show with a violent scene or merely a commercial with a violent preview, inappropriate material pops up much too often for my comfort. I am sure my children are not the only ones who have difficulty sleeping after they are inadvertently exposed to violence on television."

On the other end of the spectrum, it seems many parents are more than happy turning their children over to whatever TV has to offer. I was surprised to read in the Report that that 30% of children 0-3 years old have a television in their bedroom, and 43% of children 4-6 have a television in their bedroom, while 60% of 8-17- year-olds have such sets.

Another difficulty: kids seem to stay up later than in the past. Is time-channeling an answer?

How late must adults stay up to watch their favorite shows? Already programs such as Lost and CSI: Miami have been pushed to the 10 - 11 p.m. slot to avoid big-money penalties for an errant word or flash of skin. (When can we sleep?) As I noted in an earlier article, PBS is running kiddie shows up through midnight.

Will 8 - 10 p.m start looking like Saturday morning? Will 10 p.m. to midnight become the new prime-time?

Will the FCC become this country's new nanny?

It's all political; maybe someone will start a new war and the winds will forget about TV violence. Maybe peace will break out. Who knows?