Chapter 10: Video Violence

Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media
by William F. Fore

Chapter 10: Video Violence

Mother #1: "Don't let your kids see Friday the 13th; it's full of steamy sex."

Mother #2: "What? That's terrible! I thought it just had violence."

--exchange overheard in Ridgewood, New Jersey



When Benjamin Spock, M.D., was starting out in pediatrics, he didn't believe that on-screen violence was harmful to children. Then, about thirty years ago, he changed his mind.

It was soon after The Three Stooges became popular on television. A nursery school teacher told Spock that suddenly children were beginning to bop each other on the head without warning. When she would tell a child who had just hit another that hitting wasn't acceptable, the child wouldn't show any regret but instead would say, "That's what the Three Stooges do."

Suddenly, Dr. Spock realized that children--especially young children--will pattern themselves after violent behavior just as readily as they will imitate good behavior. He realized that TV violence can cause harm to children.1

Sometimes it happens with adults, too. In 1984, after Farrah Fawcett played in The Burning Bed, a TV drama that told the true story of a battered wife who ended thirteen years of marital torment by setting fire to the gasoline-soaked bed of her sleeping husband, a number of copy-cat assaults occurred across the nation. In Milwaukee, thirty-nine-year-old Joseph Brandt viewed the TV show and shortly thereafter poured gasoline over his estranged wife and set her afire. In Quincy, Massachusetts, a husband became angered by the movie and beat his wife senseless. In Chicago, a battered wife watched the show, and then shot her husband.2

It is a fact that people in the U.S. are more prone to violence than are people of any other industrialized nation. Between 1963 and 1973, while the war in Vietnam was taking 46,212 lives, firearms in the U.S. killed 84,644 civilians. If the United States had the same homicide rate as Japan, our 1966 death toll from guns would have been 32 instead of 6,855. In the last fifty years the rate of rapes in the United States has increased 700 percent, on a per capita basis. In 1980 there were eight handgun murders in England and 10,012 in the United States.3 During the last thirty years the U.S. homicide rate per capita has increased almost 100 per cent. Between 1974 and 1983, the number per capita of aggravated assaults increased 6 percent, forcible rape 26 percent, robbery 2 percent, and child abuse 48 percent. 4 And although reliable Canadian statistics were not available before 1980, one authority states that "violent crimes have constantly increased" there during the last half-century.5

For years people have asked whether the amount of violence portrayed on movie and TV screens has anything to do with the growing violence in real life. As early as the 1950s, the U.S. Congress held hearings on the possible negative effects of television. Industry representatives immediately promised to reduce violence while simultaneously denying any evidence of harmful effects. Yet television violence increased steadily.

In 1967, following a two-week period when whole sections of Detroit and Newark were bombed, burned, and vandalized, President Lyndon B. Johnson established a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. In March 1968, the Commission issued a 608-page report that laid much of the blame for the crisis on the mass media. The Commission charged that although the media tried to give a balanced and factual account of the events of the summer of 1967, they tended overall to exaggerate "both good and bad events." Television, in particular, was found to have presented violence in simplistic terms--depicting "a visual three-way alignment of Negroes, white bystanders, and public officials or enforcement agents," which tended to create the impression that the riots were predominantly racial confrontations between blacks and whites, while factors such as economic and political frustration were pushed into the background.

The national unrest persisted. In early 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed in Memphis, then Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. A new U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, headed by Milton S. Eisenhower, stated: "Violence on television encourages violent forms of behavior, and fosters moral and social values about violence in daily life which are unacceptable in a civilized society." It concluded: "Television entertainment based on violence may be effective merchandising, but it is an appalling way to serve the 'public interest, convenience and necessity.'''6

Once again, the broadcasting industry resisted the conclusions of the Commission and attacked its findings as based on insufficient evidence. At the same time, network presidents solemnly proclaimed that violence was being reduced and that children's programming was being improved.

Yet one more time, in 1969, John O. Pastore, chairman of the U.S. Senate Communications Subcommittee, requested the surgeon general, Dr. Jesse Steinfeld, to appoint a committee to conduct a study "which will establish scientifically insofar as possible what harmful effects, if any, these [televised crime and violence] programs have on children." Steinfeld testified in 1972 at a Senate hearing that the study had unearthed "sufficient data" to establish a causal relationship between watching television violence and behaving aggressively. Said Dr. Steinfeld: "My professional response ... is that the broadcasters should be put on notice. The overwhelming consensus and the unanimous Scientific Advisory Committee's report indicate that television violence, indeed, does have an adverse effect on certain members of our society."7

But according to the "Violence Profile" conducted annually by George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, the level of violence in television showed no significant change throughout the 1970s. Instead, broadcasters continued to insist that the research on behavioral effects of TV violence was "inconclusive."

The research continued, and in May 1982 the National Institute of Mental Health released the findings of a ten-year follow-up to the surgeon general's 1972 study: "After ten more years of research, the consensus among most of the research community is that violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior by children and teenagers who watch the programs."8

Thus by 1982 the overwhelming weight of research had demonstrated various degrees of relationship between violence in the media and violent behavior in the society. The U.S. public felt something was terribly wrong but lacked an organizational structure to do anything about the degree of violence. Some vigilante groups, tired of promises and no action by the broadcasting industry, began to take matters into their own hands by initiating boycotts and urging the passage of censorship laws in communities and states. Fortunately, they had very little success, because the courts rejected attempts by individual groups to impose their views on others.

At that point the National Council of Churches decided the time had come to do something about both the increase of violence and the increasing threats of censorship. But to take action, it first needed the facts. In 1983 it established a special study committee "to examine the problems of exploitative sex and gratuitous violence in the media."

The study had two aims: first to help church people and the public to identify the issues; and second, to identify solutions that would not restrict the rights of citizens to express themselves freely in a democracy.

The committee recognized that sexuality and violent actions are found in all of life, and that the mass media would be dishonest if it were to attempt to "sanitize" these dimensions of the human condition. For these reasons, the Commission focused on "exploitative sex" and "gratuitous violence."

In 1984 the study committee held three public hearings, one focused on the research findings (in New York City), a second on the views of the communications industry (in Los Angeles), and a third on policy proposals and alternatives (in Washington, D.C.). It heard testimony from thirty-one persons, including researchers, producers, directors, writers, actors, corporate executives, legislators, and leaders of national educational and public interest organizations.

Research Findings

The committee consulted some of the most respected and eminent researchers in the field. Here is a summary of what these experts reported:

Edward Donnerstein of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin reported on young men who were exposed to "slasher" films (I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Toolbox Murders). When these men were placed in a "jury" at a mock rape trial, they were far more likely than the control group to believe that the rape victim "was asking for it," that the rape did not do serious damage to the woman, and that the accused should get off with a light sentence.

Donnerstein's research showed that films which combine erotic material with violence tend to desensitize people regarding aggression against women. He emphasized that the problem was with the element of aggression, not with the sexual component.

David Pearl of the National Institute of Mental Health had just conducted a ten-year follow-up study on behalf of the surgeon general's office. Pearl found that television has four effects on violent behavior:

1.         direct imitation of observed violence;

2.         "triggering" of violence which otherwise might be inhibited;

3.         desensitization to the occurrence of violence; and

4.         viewer fearfulness.

Regarding the overall social effect, Pearl warned

Consider the situation if even only one out of a thousand viewing children or youth were affected (there may well be a higher rate). A given prime time national program whose audience includes millions of children and adolescents would generate a group of thousands of youngsters who were influenced in some way. Consider also the cumulative effects for viewers who watch such programs throughout the year. Even if only a small number of antisocial incidents were precipitated in any community, these often may be sufficient to be disruptive and to impair the quality of life for citizens of that community.9

George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications, reported on the findings of his seventeenth annual Violence Profile, which indicated that the overall Violence Index during 1982-1983 once again had not diminished but was approximately at its seventeen-year average. However, violence in children's weekend programs reached a record high, with a rate of 30.3 violent incidents per hour against a seventeen-year average of 20. Gerbner summarized his findings:

For the past 17 years, at least, our children grew up and we all lived with a steady diet of about 16 entertaining acts of violence (2 of them lethal) in prime time alone every night, and probably dozens if not hundreds more for our children every weekend. We have been immersed in a tide of violent representations that is historically unprecedented and shows no real sign of receding.10

Since then, Gerbner and his researchers have issued five additional annual Violence Profiles that show essentially the same pattern: no decrease in violence on TV. Indeed, there has been a slight but continuing increase in violent programming aimed at children through the 1987-1988 season.

Gerbner explained to the study committee the role of television in creating a "mean and violent world" in the minds of many viewers--particularly heavy viewers:

viewers in every education, age, income, sex, newspaper reading and neighborhood category express a greater sense of insecurity and apprehension than do light Most heavy viewers ....

Fearful people are most dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled .... They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television.11

Gerbner called for parents, educators, and religious and political leaders to mobilize, to combat not only violence in the media "but the larger structure of inequity and injustice behind it."12

The study committee concluded that violence in the media does lead to aggressive behavior by children, teenagers, and adults who watch the programs. The committee stressed that not all viewers become aggressive, of course, but the correlation between violence and aggressive behavior by some is undeniable. In the words of the committee: "Media violence is as strongly related to aggressive behavior as any other behavioral variable that has been measured."

Who's in Charge?

If media violence, especially when that violence is in its nature sexual, in fact does threaten the quality of American life, then how do the creative and managerial people in television feel about the use of violence in their productions? What pressures within the industry lead to such a high degree of violence? Who makes the decisions: the actors? directors? producers? distributors? networks? sponsors? And what can concerned citizens do about the problem?

These media issues were discussed by the National Council of Churches study committee with a number of the media creators in Los Angeles, people who spend most of their time bringing into being the world of television. What the committee found was disturbing, though perhaps predictable. First, individual members of the industry are concerned, many of them profoundly, about the increasing amount of sex and violence in the media in which they work.

For example, from Christine Foster, a major TV producer:

"Mainstream, legitimate network and production company executives, producers, writers and directors, are, like you, conscientious citizens, family people, mothers and fathers .... We are conscious of the effect we have on the public and on our communities."

Second, the people working in the media industries are part of a vast and complex system which parcels out responsibility, a little bit to everyone, so that, in the end, no one is ultimately responsible. For example, when participants in the Los Angeles hearing were asked, "Who has the responsibility to do something about the problem of sex and violence?" the answers consistently placed responsibility on someone else.

Actors said they only do what they are told by the writers and directors. Writers and directors said producers require them to put more sex and violence into the shows. The producers said it is the networks that demand more sex and violence. Networks said their choices are limited, the competition is brutal, and the sponsors demand results. Everyone agreed they don't like the amount of exploitative sex and gratuitous violence that they, together, created.

What about the sponsors? Producer Gene Reynolds charged that "sponsors in the last twenty years have escaped responsibility." David Levy (president of the Caucus of Producers, Directors, and Writers) explained that some twenty years ago such sponsors as Kraft, Hallmark, and Texaco normally purchased a whole series of programs on television, but that today sponsors only purchase time--a few minutes of spot advertising on many different programs. Thus the sponsors now reach many different audiences many times each day but in doing so they diffuse their responsibility for any particular program among a half-dozen or more other sponsors.

Sponsors dearly have an interest in the content of programs with which the public may associate their commercial message. For example, General Motors has had the following guideline for many years:

Our aim is to avoid association with those programs that appear to emphasize offensive subject matter and language for their own sake.

Levy summed up the situation by saying that "there are no 'wild men' in the media today. Instead, they are all in a System that traps them."

Third, each TV network has only one ultimate objective--to win the largest number of viewers during every half hour of every day. This ratings drive, on which fees for commercials are based, is the economic reality at the root of the problem.

Given this system, advertisers are acting quite rationally when they buy the cheapest programs that will reach the largest number of viewers with their message, regardless of program quality. Broadcasters are considered by their stockholders to be acting in an economically responsible way if they provide programs that are produced very cheaply--even if the programs contain much unnecessary violence--if, in doing so, they reach the largest possible audience and make the largest number of sales and highest possible profits. But their decision to air violent programs must be considered irresponsible by the public at large.

Deregulation of broadcasting in the U.S. and the Federal Communications Commission's apparent indifference to the practices of broadcast licensees and cable operators in effect seem to legitimize the operation of these media as businesses like any other business, disregarding the public trusteeship that is required by the Communications Act. In spite of the view of writer Bill Sackheim that "ninety percent of the people in this business want to do good work," the FCC has created a regulatory vacuum that inevitably fosters inexpensive, low quality programming which, to be cheap and yet get instant mass attention, must become increasingly violent.

In summary, there are four major reasons for the high amount of sexual violence and overall violence in TV produced in the U.S.: (1) monopoly control of program production and distribution by a handful of powerful companies (2) the drive for profits far in excess of those enjoyed by the vast majority of U.S. businesses (3) a lack of accountability on the part of sponsors and (4) the failure of the Federal Communications Commission to exercise adequate oversight of broadcasting.

What has happened since the National Council of Churches study report and recommendations? Essentially nothing. The churches have not seen the issue as a high priority. Some even question whether church organizations ought to be meddling in such matters. The vigilante and boycott groups have gotten nowhere. Meanwhile, the Violence Profile for 1987 shows that the amount of violence on television continues at the same high levels. Some programming, such as MTV and cable channels, are actually increasing the overall amount of violence and sexual violence going into homes in North America.

What can be done? The study committee made specific recommendations for each of the major visual media in the U.S., recommendations that remain to be implemented. In Canada the problems are somewhat different, both in scope and complexity. In May 1985 a Canadian Task Force report on Broadcasting Policy was established by the minister of communications, and it studied most of these same issues within the Canadian context.13 Where applicable, the Canadian Task Force report will be used to supplement the U.S. recommendations.

How to Decrease Violence on Television

1. In the U.S., the key to decreasing violence on television is for broadcasters to exercise their responsibility to serve the public welfare. Television will serve this larger purpose only when the Federal Communications Commission reasserts its oversight of the broadcasting industry on behalf of the public interest. Broadcasting was deregulated during the early 1980s, and as long as deregulation remains in effect, the public cannot expect an industry engaged in a constant "business war" over ratings to take seriously its social obligation to reduce the amount of violence in its programming. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates radio and television and imposes conditions of license which are considerably more detailed than in the United States. With the growth of the multinational communication giants and their effort to remove communication from regulation worldwide, Canadians should insist that present regulations of the CRTC not be compromised. Also, the Canadian Task Force recommends the creation of "TV Canada," a new satellite-to-cable service which would be non-commercial and would focus on "redressing the present imbalance that favours foreign [American] programs."14

2. In the U.S., broadcasting networks and stations should be required by the Federal Communications Commission to carry the rating of the Motion Picture Classification and Rating Administration (G, PG, PG-13, R, and X), with additional short descriptive phrases that indicate the amount and intensity of violence. Ratings and descriptions should appear in on-the-air promotions for programs, in newspaper and television guide listings, and in network, sponsor, and station advertisements.

In Canada, movie ratings are determined differently in each province, so there is no national rating system. However, the CRTC could enact a regulation requiring all stations to alert viewers to the amount and intensity of violence on forthcoming programs. Fortunately, many newspapers in Canada and the United States voluntarily note excessively violent and sexually explicit material in their movie reviews.

3. The FCC should be required to conduct annual hearings, open to the public, in which producers of television programming (networks, stations, syndicators, production houses, sponsors) would be required to explain how and by whom decisions are made to determine the content of entertainment programs. Only by such public discussion can the present anonymity of program decision making be penetrated and responsibility for program content be fixed. Stations should also be required to meet regularly with members of the public to discuss and assess the content and effects of entertainment programs and the relationships of these programs to generally accepted community values. Some stations follow this procedure even though regulations no longer require it, but most stations have dropped any significant community involvement.

4. Networks and stations should be required by U.S. law to devote a percentage of their air time, production budgets, and facilities to children's programming. The United States remains the only developed nation that does not require its television industry to provide programs for children. There is no Constitutional reason why Congress could not require television stations to provide regularly scheduled programming for children, Monday through Friday during after-school hours, at a time when older children could view it (4 p.m. to 6 p.m.). The courts have ruled that while the FCC cannot tell broadcasters what to broadcast, it can establish program categories that broadcasters must provide, and "children's programs" could be such a category.

In Canada the number of hours of children's programming per week actually increased between 1976 and 1985, but the CBC, Canada's public broadcasting network, recently has reduced its children's programming as part of overall cutbacks. If the Canadian Task Force recommendation for the creation of a "TV Canada" cable system is approved, the new channel would provide extensive additional programming for children and young people.

5. Incidents of violence should not be included in commercial announcements, such as trailers that advertise violent movies. If violent commercials are run, then free counter advertising time should be accorded to local community groups under a "Fairness Doctrine" which would require that a station that airs an issue of public importance (such as violence) must also air the opposing views. In the 1960s when the FCC required stations to run counter advertisements (under the Fairness Doctrine) every time an ad for cigarettes was played, the broadcasting industry soon agreed to legislation prohibiting all smoking ads, since the alternative was to run one free minute for every paid minute of cigarette advertising. The same mechanism could work against commercials with violence. In Canada, such additional regulation would be up to the CRTC.

How to Decrease Violence on Cable

1. The film rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America should be adopted by the U.S. cable industry. This step would involve a commitment by all "member" cable companies to make the ratings available in all advance information, schedules, and promotion as well as on the screen at the time of showing, as recommended for television broadcasting stations. In Canada, every cable company is licensed by the CRTC, which to date has much stricter requirements than in the U.S. The CRTC could require cable systems to adopt the MPAA ratings, or establish a similar rating system for Canada that would be carried on cable.

2. Congress should require all cable companies to make the lockout feature available on all channel-switching devices they normally provide to their subscribers. The lockout makes one or more channels temporarily unavailable.

3. Cable companies should be required to place all R- and Xrated films on a channel separate from other movies. For example, HBO, Cinemax, and The Movie Channel each would be required to have an "A" channel for family fare and a "B" channel for the more violent and sexually explicit films. This division would allow parents easily to lock out films deemed objectionable for their children, and still have access to them when desired. Suppliers such as Disney, which run only G, PG, or PG-13 films, would still have only a single channel, as would Playboy and other suppliers of exclusively R- and X-rated films. The advantage of this plan is that it does not restrict access on the part of adults while it gives parents more freedom of choice about what their children can see at home. The same system could work in Canada, especially since most of the "second tier" cable channels are American.

How to Decrease Violence in Videocassettes

The number of stores renting and selling videocassettes has increased dramatically during the past decade. Sixty percent of U.S. homes now have videocassette recorders, and this number is expected to increase steadily. The New York Times reports that dealers estimate that from 20 to 40 percent of cassettes rented in video stores are in the category of sexually explicit material. Virtually all of the Rand PG-13 films that contain violent and sexually violent material are available for sale in videocassette stores. The situation is similar in Canada, and many of the video stores are subsidiaries of U.S. companies.

Congress should require that videos intended for adults (Rated, X-rated, and unrated) not be displayed prominently in storefronts and not be sold or rented to persons under seventeen years of age. Videocassettes do not come into the home like cable TV. Cassettes must be rented or purchased in stores. In this sense they are more like books or magazines than television, and they are entitled to the same protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution accorded books and magazines.

However, the First Amendment protection of free speech does not extend to children. The Supreme Court has taken the position that society has the obligation to judge what speech is appropriate for children. Just as persons under a certain age are not allowed to drink, drive, or vote, the sale of X-rated videos to children should be forbidden, either by industry self-regulation or, if this does not work, by law. Most video stores in the U.S. and Canada do not openly display X-rated videos, or sell or rent them to children under seventeen. On the other hand, to allow government the authority to decide what adults may see and hear represents a greater threat to the welfare of the society than to allow expressions that may be objectionable to many.


Clearly, violence and sexual violence in the media must be reduced. This goal can be attained without depriving those in the media of their livelihood or the rewards which are justly theirs, and without depriving citizens of their freedom of speech.

In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is reasonably responsive to public concerns, and concerned citizens should express their views regarding the growing problem of violence and sexual violence in all of the mass media. The CRTC could require better information about the amount of violence in broadcast material; it could insist that the CBC and other broadcasters provide more children's programming; and it could require lockout boxes on all cable systems -- changes that would go a long way in dealing with violent material.

In the U.S., concerned citizens must understand the extent to which the whole system of commercial broadcasting establishes an environment encouraging not violent programming itself, but the conditions that result in violent programming. Profits require large audiences and economies of production. Large audiences require vivid, exciting, simple movement. Economies of production require stereotypes and action rather than complex relationships. Sponsors want audiences, networks engage in "business war," and writers and directors get the message: more violent action.

In one sense no one is in charge of this complex system, hence no one can be blamed. But in another sense, everyone must share the blame--including the audience, the industry, and the political leaders who symbolically wash their hands of the problem by leaving it to "the marketplace." So long as we allow television to be an instrument for sales rather than for communication, the situation will persist. Christians have an obligation to reduce violence wherever possible, an obligation that stems from the explicit teachings and example of Jesus, from their faith in God's purpose for human creatures to live in harmony, and from their everyday ministry with those who suffer the effects of violence.



1. Benjamin Spock, "How On-Screen Violence Hurts Your Kids," in Redbook,

November 1987, p. 26.

             .        Newsweek, October 22, 1984, p. 38.

3. Jervis Anderson, "An Extraordinary People," The New Yorker, Novem-

ber 12, 1984, p. 128.

4. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract

of the United States 1985 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984),

pp. 166, 172, 183.

5. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), vol. 1, p.536.

6. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, "Commission Statement on Violence in Television Entertainment Programs," September 23, 1969 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office).

7. Broadcasting magazine, March 27, 1972, p. 25.

8. Broadcasting, p. 25.

9. David Pearl, "Television: Behavioral and Attitudinal Influences," National Institute for Mental Health, Washington, DC, 1985, p. 6.

10. George Gerbner, "Gratuitous Violence and Exploitative Sex: What Are the Lessons? (Including Violence Profile No. 13)," prepared for the Study Committee of the Communications Commission of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., September 21, 1984 (Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia PA 19104), pp. 2-3.

11. "Gratuitous Violence," pp. 5-6.

12. "Gratuitous Violence," pp. 10-11.

13. Task Force on Broadcasting Policy, Government of Canada, Report of the Task Force on Broadcasting Policy (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1986).

14. Task Force, Report, p. 353