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Senate Hearing on Media Violence

July 1, 2007

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on Media Violence on June 26. Testimony seemed to be split along ideological versus practical lines.

The idealogues argued passionately that the government should protect children from violence (and sexual content and profanity) on television as an absolute matter. Their position was paternalistic in that it took parents out of the loop.

Parents could be negligent or complicit or otherwise simply not there. Parents could buy TVs for their young children's bedrooms. It didn't matter. For whatever reason, as long as children could see depictions of violence on TV, it was the government's duty to remove that violence from TV programming.

The proponents of direct government action (censorship) tended to find acts of violence disgusting during their own TV viewing.

On the other side of the debate were those who advocated giving parents tools they could use to limit the type of programming their children could see. They wanted greater access to easier-to-use technology--an evolution from the V-chip, a more accurate and descriptive ratings system, and better education for parents.

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (silver spoon still firmly in mouth) was acting Chairman in the absence of Dan Inouye. His opening statement made it clear where he stood.

From his ivory tower he accused the entertainment industry of putting the blame on parents and vowed to continue to introduce bills until violent content was off the air.

He showed a 5-minute clip of violence on TV that was not shown clearly on the webcast, but later discussion indicated it may have had scenes from The Sopranos and a recent scene from an episode of NCIS where balloons of cocaine or heroin swallowed by a (human) mule broke, killing him. The drug dealer cut open the body, spilling the powder all over the corpse during a fight; the dead man's addict sister, too long without a fix, started snorting the powder spilled over her dead brother's guts.

I saw that NCIS episode when it aired and that scene was indeed powerful, but seems to me rather than incite kids to violence, it would turn them off to drugs.

Rockefeller continued, comparing what kids see on TV to what Iraqi children have experienced during the war. (Not quite the same, Mr. John.)

He said he has never gotten a reason why the entertainment industry hasn't stopped putting violence on TV; instead they continue to show "unconscionable" levels of sex and gratuitous violence.

Regarding parental tools, such as V-chip, he said many parents who are "computer literate" cannot make "those things" work.

Grandfather and Senator Ted Stevens surprised me by suggesting that if government censorship went too far, they would run into constitutional limits. He noted that there were many different ways that kids saw violent content today besides TV (e.g. internet and iPod), and that a better approach would be to educate parents on how they could control what their children watched.

Rockefeller retorted that if the violent content wasn't created in the first place, then kids couldn't watch it on their iPods.

Senator Lautenburg said that interest in the Sopranos started at home--meaning the public wanted to see that sort of programming. He said we tried prohibition, but that didn't work because the public didn't want it. How do you curb the public appetite for content that contains violence?

He referenced the very real violence in Iraq as a double standard, suggesting that the government censored TV reporting of the coffins returning from Iraq because the administration didn't want people to know what happens in war.

Paternalism? Big brother knows best?

Senator Gordon Smith (OR) suggested that government cannot substitute for good parenting. He thought the tools could be improved.

He said the a la carte cable channel pricing approach was not the way to go because many of the children's programs are dependent on the success of the other more popular channels (in the same tier) that are available. As the cable industry argument goes, you will therefore lose kids channels if the government gives consumers the right to choose the channels they want to see. (I still can't find the logic in that. Is he advocating that the government require that unpopular programs favored by Rockefeller & Company be subsidized?)

The Witnesses:

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was scheduled but unable to attend. He's anti-volence but pro a la carte.

Tim Winter, President, Parents Television Council made a predictable presentation. They have 1.2 million members. Their mission is to protect children and families from sex, violence, and profanity.

He declared that the entertainment industry was instilling a "disrespect for authority."

They monitor all shows and document every incident of objectionable content and enter all the details into a computer database. One incident every 13.5 minutes during prime time. Depictions of violence have become more realistic. He cited numerous examples. He said cable bundling requires people to fund the production of violent programming.

Peter Liguori, President of Entertainment, Fox Broadcasting offered a different perspective. He said they had a separate department to ensure their programs complied with the law; they rate each episode of each show; they rate for age and for content. They show a full-screen warning to parents at the beginning of each show in text with voice-over. Etc.

Dale Kunkel, Professor, Department of Communication, University of Arizona has studied children and media for 20 years. He said children learn violent behavior from TV violence; they become desensitized; they become fearful of harm to themselves. He said media violence is the most pervasive factor influencing violence in society.

Jeff J. McIntyre, Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, Public Policy Office, American Psychological Association-- his testimony was pretty much a repeat of Kunkel's.

Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Harvard Law School was introduced by Senator Rockefeller as a consultant for cable networks and the movie industry. Later, Rockefeller felt compelled to point out for the record that Tribe was getting paid by those industries to appear at the hearing. (Everyone there was getting paid by someone with an agenda, but Rockefeller was getting irked that as the hearing progressed, Tribe came across as having the most credibility.)

Tribe clarified that he was stating his own views and noted that he is a parent and grandparent. He is also an authority on free speech issues.

He argued that it was not necessary to chose between protecting children and protecting free speech. He said that in the long run, it is not in the interest of society to sacrifice free speech. It was better to improve the tools that parents have.

He suggested that empowering parents was not a perfect solution, but it was a better solution. He said we should not turn the keys of the television over to "big brother;" it would be impossible for the government to determine what level of violence is acceptable for anyone's children.

Rockefeller countered that it means nothing if the parents are watching the program and the children are watching the violence with them, then that solves all of the problem. (What did he mean by that? That the parents are irresponsible?) He said telling the parents to do better is a cop-out. Rockefeller rejected the notion that our television reflects our society; he said television should be a force for good, and advocated the need for more children's programming.

Senator Stevens noted that Band of Brothers was banned from broadcast TV; he thought children should see shows like that.

On the issue of time channeling (e.g. moving all programs with violent content to after 10 p.m.), Tribe suggested that approach did not solve the problem of vagueness. You still have to know what unacceptable violence is. Furthermore, adults would be proscribed from watching programming with violent content during the day and prime-time evening hours.

Tribe also explained that sex and violence are two different issues from the perspective of established Supreme Court precedent. He said no line the government could draw on violence would be safe from constitutional attack; sex can be "obscene" but not violence, legally speaking.

Senator Lautenburg asked Winter whether there were studies on the impact on children of violence in news reporting, e.g. the Iraqi war? Winter replied no. Kunkell volunteered that there would be a risk to children from viewing such news. Lautenburg asked about pro wrestling? Ice hockey? Gun violence in the home?

There was then some discussion on how many parents used existing tools for controlling their children's viewing. One witness asserted that many parents simply did not bother; he was looking for a way to protect their kids.

Rockefeller echoed that, saying many parents are under unbelievable pressure in their lives, some are strung out by drugs. If parental responsibility does not work, "then we have to try something else." He said to point at parents is an "inordinately repulsive" statement. Television went "straight downhill" beginning in 1992.

The 70 year-old Rockefeller continued, saying "Americans don't know technology well." He was irritated that the "three people [witnesses] who know the most about the problem are the three people who got the least questions." He was upset that Committee members directed most of their questions to Professor Tribe, who advocated a position at odds with his own.

My impression (based on this hearing) is that depictions of violence in prime-time dramas will continue. Ratings may become more descriptive. V-chips will become more pervasive as more pre-2000 model TV sets are retired. And perhaps kids who have grown up with computers will figure out "those things" when they become parents.