TV Violence: A Medium's Effects Under Scrutiny

by Mary A. Hepburn

The nature of children's television viewing has lately been a newsworthy phenomenon. CNN founder Ted Turner, addressing a Montana audience in the summer of 1996, expressed dismay at the quantity of television watched by young people: "I worry about the younger generation. They're vidiots. They spend too much time watching TV."1 Almost simultaneously, President Clinton was using the bully pulpit to urge the television industry to improve the quality of kids' TV by meeting the standards of the Children's
Television Act of 1990.
In July 1996, the TV networks responded by promising at least three hours per week of real educational programming for children, clearly a step forward. Moreover, within the past year-and in the face of repeated concerns about the possible effects of television violence-a broadcasting industry group has developed a rating system to go with the V-chip required in all new TV sets by 1998.2

While the American public still has to confront both quality and quantity problems in television, this recent progress is in part the result of active citizen efforts to make the media more accountable.

Early Research: Denial and Inaction
Despite a number of research studies in the 1960s and 1970s that linked aggressive behavior with heavy doses of viewing on-screen violence, the television and movie industries for decades denied that pervasive violence in American entertainment had any negative influence on children. The U.S. Surgeon General's 1972 report, The Impact of Televised Violence, caused hardly a blip on the video scene-this after a committee of scientists and TV industry representatives had reviewed the research and concluded that viewing violence on television does influence the children watching and increase the likelihood of their exhibiting aggressive behavior. 3
Additional research in the 1980s offered clear warning that viewing daily doses of physical threats, stalkings, beatings, shootings, knifings, rape, and other violent acts was affecting the feelings and behavior of youngsters and even older viewers. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opposed any type of regulation, its chairman describing television as no different from other home appliances-in effect, "a toaster with pictures." As the FCC moved to deregulate children's television in 1984, medical and psychological researchers found their warnings falling on deaf ears, and public discussion was stonewalled by lack of both honest response and organized public interest.4

Within the broadcast media, there has been endless finger pointing as to who is responsible for the violence on television. As Senator Paul Simon recently described the sequence: "Executives say they use what producers give them; producers blame the screen writers; and the screen writers say they script what they have been instructed to write."5 Many have claimed they are only reflecting society's violence, while refusing to examine the evidence that their programs might be adding to that violence. In the past several years, however, wider dissemination of research findings on media violence-coupled with pressure from medical professionals, media-watch groups, educators and parents, and political leaders-has captured public attention. This change in public awareness and response to media violence has forced the industry to respond.

Current Research: Linking Causes and Effects
The problem of TV violence has three interlinking elements: the heavy viewing of television, the violent content of TV programs, and the psychological and behavioral effects of combining the two.

Life in Front of the Tube
There is little question about the pervasiveness of the TV screen in American homes. About 99% of American households have television, often two or three TV sets. The average hours of television viewing have increased annually in American households, from 43 hours weekly in the early seventies to 50 hours weekly in the mid-nineties.6 Nielsen reports in 1993 showed an average viewing time of 23 hours per week by youngsters aged 2 to 11, and about 21.5 hours per week by teenagers.7
As the number of TV sets per home has increased, family viewing has declined, while individual program selection and solitary viewing has increased. Media Dynamics estimates that 52% of all TV set usage is now by a solitary viewer.8 It also estimates that on an average day, 50-60% of children aged 2 to 5 can be expected to view one or more shows at any time except late evening, while 75% of children aged 6 to 11 and teenagers aged 12 to 17 can be expected to view one or more shows at any time of day including late evening. The television lifestyle is well established in U.S. households, and it is difficult to rule out any time in terms of when young people are watching.

The Violent World of Television
A 1993 report by the American Psychological Association warned that the average American child was watching 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence before leaving elementary school.9 But, until recently, the U.S. did not have the benefit of annual, nationwide systematic monitoring of video programs.
Two vast studies are now underway, funded-remarkably enough-by the television industry. Urged on by several congressional leaders, the four major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) support one of the independent monitoring programs, while the National Cable Television Association supports the other. Over the past three years, informative reports from these research studies have shed light on the extent of the violence transmitted on television in the United States. Their findings support concerns over both the quantity of viewing time and the quality of what is available to watch.

Violence on the Networks: the UCLA Reports.
The network monitoring program is a three-year study being conducted by the Center for Communication Policy at the University of California in Los Angeles.10 The first UCLA report (1995) provided some insight into the amount of violence in different kinds of TV programs: prime-time series, made-for-television movies, theater movies shown on television, Saturday morning children's programs, specials, and promotions for coming shows. Although the study found decreases in the violence in prime-time series and made-for-TV movies, it reported that Saturday morning children's programs, made-for-theater movies, and promotionals all contained excessive violence.

Viewing the 121 network series, the report assessed only ten as raising frequent concerns about violence, while an additional eight series evoked "some concern" in their presentations of violence. Among the prime time shows cited for glorified or excessive violence were Walker, Mantis, X-Files, Lois and Clark, Due South, Fortune Hunter, and Tales from the Crypt.

Recognizing violence as a part of life that must be dealt with in TV dramas, the UCLA study cited examples of prime time shows that deal with violence as a social problem, avoid showing graphic and overdone violent scenes, and include the repercussions of violent acts as well as expressions of remorse. Among the examples of programs that they found treated violence appropriately were Law and Order and NYPD Blue.

Network programs for children on Saturday morning (which excludes NBC) were also subject to analysis. These cartoons and stories were categorized as:

1 slapstick with a comedic theme,
2 tame combat violence usually involving a battle between good and evil, and
3 sinister combat violence where depicting fights and other violent acts seems to be the main purpose of the program.

The third type of children's show was found to have considerably more vicious fighting than the others, accompanied by hard-driving music and story themes in which the heroes try to destroy their foes rather than bring them to justice. Examples were the newest versions of Batman and Robin and X-Men. Many promotions for coming TV programs were also criticized for stringing together out-of-context violent images.
Films made for theaters generated the greatest concern in regard to violence. Nearly half of these action films, even after editing for TV, were judged as displaying excessive violence. According to the report: "The violence contained in the most disturbing television series is minor in comparison to that contained in theatrical films shown on network broadcast television."11 The study concluded that Hollywood produces much of the gratuitous violence that ends up on television.

A Review of All Channels: the National Television Violence Study. The National Television Violence Study (NTVS) was funded by the National Cable Television Association and conducted independently by researchers at four universities: the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of North Carolina, the University of Texas, and the University of Wisconsin.12 This study monitored all types of TV channels-basic cable, premium cable, public broadcasting, independent broadcasting, and the networks-for a twelve-month period in 1994-1995, as the beginning of a continuing effort.

Overall, this study concluded that the majority of television programs (57%) contain violence, often including numerous violent interactions in one program. Among the programs with violence, the perpetrator engages in repeated acts of violence in 58% of the programs. Moreover, about 75% of all the violence monitored shows no punishment of the perpetrators. According to the report, "The world of television is not only violent-it also consistently sanctions its violence."13

More than a third of the programs with violent content presented it as humorous and tended to trivialize the brutality. Only 4% of all violent programs presented a strong anti-violence theme. It is more common to find violence depicted as "attractive, effective, and socially acceptable."14

Comparing the five types of channels, public broadcasting had the lowest overall percentage of programs with violence. The networks were below the industry average in violence, the basic cable channels close to the industry average of 57%, and the independent stations above average in violence. Premium cable channels-such as Showtime, HBO, and Playboy-had the highest percentage of violent content. Similarly to the UCLA analysis, the National Television Violence Study revealed that when various types of programs are compared, movies have the highest quantity of violent content, with numerous violent acts portrayed in realistic settings.

This study too found children's programs to be worse than regular network adult programming with regard to violence. Children's programs are nearly 10% above the average for violent content. Perhaps more troubling is that children's shows are less likely to show the pain and suffering of victims, and very seldom show the long-term consequences of violence. Very few channels used warnings and advisories preceding violent programs; perhaps that would be doubly embarrassing if they had to be applied to kids' shows.

Linking Causes and Effects
The third element in the media violence discussion, psychological and behavioral effects, is hardly in question in the late 1990s. The negative influence that prolonged viewing can and does have on individuals is underscored by the National Television Violence Study report. Researchers looked at hundreds of experimental and longitudinal studies and concluded that viewing violence in the mass media can lead to aggressive behavior and become part of lasting behavioral patterns.
The NTVS analysis found consistent evidence that continual viewing of violent TV programs brings on desensitization towards victims and violent acts in the real world. The report warned that viewers can become "emotionally comfortable" with violent content, and even gain an appetite for it. Another possible effect is for viewers to grow increasingly fearful of becoming victims of violence; they may begin to perceive the world around them as mean and dangerous.

Remedies: Media Literacy and Public Policy
The research groups involved in the TV monitoring programs have joined the ranks of others concerned about the effects of pervasive violence on television. The UCLA group advises that media literacy should be systematically included in the school curriculum. The National Television Violence Study report urges specific attention to the types of programming that attract young people. Social studies at all grade levels offers the opportunity for students to examine and discuss TV's impact on their own lives and on society at large. The pull-out section of this issue of Social Education includes class activities suitable for different grade levels.

Media Literacy and the Tube
The modern television lifestyle is an easy fit into the social studies curriculum. Students at all levels, although with varying degrees of sophistication, can consider such issues as:
chow much time they spend watching television, and how the choice to watch TV means the choice not to do something else. chow television affects the things they want. Younger children can examine how many of the toys they play with are heavily advertised on, or "go with," TV programs. Older students may become engrossed in analyzing how television influences the things they want and buy.
chow television affects their expectations about how they should act, who they should become, what it means to be an adult, and what their society does and should value.
chow television favors action over reflection, and why commercial broadcasters use fast-action violent programming to attract viewers of all ages-but especially children on Saturday mornings.
Both of the recent TV monitoring programs recommend media literacy as a tool for mitigating the effects of television violence. The National Television Violence Study specifically recommends discussion of the context for violence in TV programs. For example:

Many organizations offer materials to help various age groups study the effects of media violence. See the list of Media Literacy Groups in the pullout section.

Public Policy and the Media
The question of what society can or should do regarding violence on television and in other media is appropriate for many areas of the social studies, including government and civics, law-related education, U.S. history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. How to deal with entertainment violence has been a public policy issue for many years, and it provides social studies classes with a high interest topic for investigating alternative policy choices and how various concerned groups have worked to mobilize political support.
One approach is that taken by Senator Paul Simon, who has long been outspoken on the need to reduce TV violence, but who is also concerned about the effectiveness of regulation and the protection of the First Amendment. Although opposed to having government oversee television and film, Simon has vociferously advocated self-regulation by the entertainment industry, urging it to fund independent organizations to document the magnitude and effects of TV violence. This approach relies on increased information and public reaction to bring the media to voluntarily reduce violent content and improve program quality.

The entertainment media have been slow to change, however, and this is especially true in the movie industry. Its leaders continue to claim that research on the effects of media violence is inconclusive, and view any pressure for change as censorship and infringement of the First Amendment rights of writers and producers. The question remains: How can society bring about change in the violent programming that flows electronically into 95 million American households and yet avoid censorship?

Newton Minow, a former chairman of the FCC, thinks the response has been to over-agonize about the First Amendment, thus obstructing the policy debate rather than encouraging the search for a course of action that will give children a better television environment.15 He reminds the public that the Federal Communications Act of 1934 gave broadcasters free use of broadcast channels on condition that they serve the public interest. Moreover, the Children's Television Act of 1990 recognized children as a special audience that should receive educational programming from commercial broadcasters.

Congressional leaders other than Simon have proposed a variety of limits on television programming to protect children. One would give the FCC power to limit violent programs to times when children are least likely to be watching. Another would require the FCC to collect data and release an annual report card to inform the public about violent content. Still another proposes that the FCC have a toll-free number for the public to call with complaints about violence in programs, with the agency publishing a summary periodically.

One proposal passed into law in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that all new television sets have a built-in technology, or V-chip, to allow owners to block out programs containing unwanted content. The V-chip would work in conjunction with some form of rating system. One such is the age-based system adopted by the broadcast industry's Implementation Group for TVRatings in late 1996. However, in response to criticism of its being too vague, broadcasters are now considering a content-based system that would rate programs on a scale of 0-3 for violence, language, sexual content, and suggestive dialogue (a V-L-S-D system). An additional rating for fantasy violence (FV) is also a possibility. Opponents of this system raise the specter of the V-chip operating as an undiscriminating censor of television programming that contains mature content.

Secondary social studies students can collect information about existing and proposed policies for regulating violence on TV. They can consider varying interpretations of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and what constitutes the "public interest" This is a timely public policy topic, and one that can be easily researched. Books, magazines, daily newspapers, the Congressional Record, and the Internet all offer information and viewpoints that bear on the question.

A Continuing Issue in Education
The scenes and sounds of television exercise great influence over young people. Television affects the way they play, their heroes, their humor, the clothes they want to buy, and their perceptions of family life and community. How can the television industry be made more responsible for protecting the public interest-our students, our children, ourselves-without jeopardizing democratic freedoms? What actions can be fairly taken to reduce electronic violence and its contributions to violent behavior in our country? This issue is not likely to be quickly resolved; it will be a public issue for social studies students, teachers, and parents for some time to come.

1. Associated Press, "Too Much TV Breeding Videots," Atlanta Constitution (June 24, 1995/6?): A6.
2. Paul Farhi, "Networks Split Over TV Ratings," The Washington Post (June 3, 1997),A1.
3. Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Commission on Television and Social Behavior, The Impact of Televised Violence (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1972).
4. Brandon S. Centerwall, "Television and Violence: The Scale of the Problem and Where to Go From Here," JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 267, no. 22 (June 1992): 3059-3063; Mary A. Hepburn, "TV Violence: Myth and Reality," Social Education 59 (September 1995): 309-311, and Vicarious Violence on TV: A Challenge to LRE, Technical Assistance Bulletin #16, American Bar Association Special Committee on Youth Education (Chicago: American Bar Association, 1996).
5. Paul Simon, Remarks on violence to the National Press Club, Washington DC (September 16, 1993).
6. Media Dynamics, TV Dimensions 1996 (New York: Media Dynamics, 1996).
7. Nielsen Media Research, Nielsen Report on Television 1992-1993 (New York: Nielsen Media Research, 1993).
8. Media Dynamics.
9. American Psychological Association, Violence and Youth: Psychology's Response, Summary Report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1993).
10. UCLA Center for Communication Policy, UCLA Television Monitoring Report 1994-95 (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1995).
11. Ibid., 151.
12. Mediascope, National Television Violence Study 1994-1995: Executive Summary (Studio City, CA: Mediascope, Inc., 1996).
13. Ibid., 26.
14. Ibid.
15. Newton Minow, "Making Television Safe for Kids," Time 145, no. 26 (June 26, 1995): 70-72; Newton Minow and Craig L. LaMay, Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).
16. Farhi.

Teaching Resources In Print
American Psychological Association. Violence and Youth: Psychology's Response. Summary Report of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1993.
American Academy of Pediatrics. "AAP Guidelines to Curb Media Violence." American Family Physician 52 (September 1, 1995): 1024.
Barry, David S. "Screen Violence and America's Children." Spectrum: The Journal of State Government 66, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 37-42.
Levin, Diane E. Teaching Young Children in Violent Times: Building a Peaceable Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility, 1994.
Lloyd-Kolkin, Donna, and Kathleen R. Tyner. Media & You: An Elementary Media Literacy Curriculum. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1991.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Position Statement on Media Violence in Children's Lives." Young Children 45, no. 5 (July 1990): 18-21.
"TV Violence: Will Hollywood Tone it Down or Face Regulation?" CQ Researcher 3, no. 12 (March 26, 1993): 165-185.

See the list of Media Literacy Groups in the pull-out section of this issue of Social Education.

Mary A. Hepburn is Professor of Social Science Education and head of the Citizen Education
Division at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, Athens.