Chapter Nine: What We Can Do About Media Violence

Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture
by William F. Fore

Chapter Nine: What We Can Do About Media Violence

The power that keeps cities of men together

Is noble preservation of law.

Euripides, 421 B.C.


It is not enough to show people how to live better; there is a mandate for any group

with enormous powers of communication to show people how to be better.

Marya Mannes, But Will It Sell?, 1964.



Who`s in Charge?

If media violence, and sexual violence in particular, in fact do 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, and what are the pressures within the industry that result in such a high degree of violence? Who is responsible for the violence? Who makes the decisions? The actors? Directors? Producers? Distributors? Networks? Sponsors? And what can concerned citizens do about the problem?

These issues were discussed by the NCC Study committee with a number of the creative people in Los Angeles, people who spend most of their time bringing into being the world of television. Their responses were 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."2.

From Robert E. A. Lee, writer of "Inherit the Wind" and "Auntie Mame": "The `media` is a collection of very intelligent people in a very difficult situation. Most creative people are not exploitative; they are high minded."3.

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 committee got answers which consistently placed responsibility on someone else.4.

From Gene Reynolds (independent television producer-director): "We need to persuade the network executives to lead the way."

From David Soul (Hutch in "Starksky and Hutch"): "The actors are the most honest -- and the least powerful -- group in Hollywood."

From Maurie Goodman (head of NBC`s Broadcast Standards in Hollywood): "The members of Broadcast Standards all want NBC to do good programming."

From Christine Foster (production house producer): "I think that the public is exposed to too much gratuitous violence and too much exploitative sex. I`m particularly concerned with the depiction of violence and disrespect against women. [But] studio executives are intelligent, brutally overworked men and women who share one thing in common with baseball managers: they wake up every morning of the world with the knowledge that sooner or later they`re going to get fired. They report to Executive Vice Presidents, who report to Senior Vice Presidents, who report to Presidents, who report to Group Presidents, who report to the Chairman of the Board, who reports to the stockholders who report to the IRS, who, I guess, report to God." And from Bill Sackheim (film and TV writer): "Ninety percent of the people in this business want to do good work. . . . It is the audience who ultimately are the masters."

In summary, actors say they only do what they are told by the writers and directors; writers and directors say producers require them to put more sex and violence into the shows; producers say it is the networks that demand more sex and violence; networks say their choices are limited, the competition is brutal, and the sponsors demand results. Everyone agrees they don`t like the amount of exploitative sex and gratuitous violence which they, together, create.

What about the sponsors? Producer Gene Reynolds charges that "sponsors in the last twenty years have escaped responsibility." David Levy (President of the Caucus of Producers, Directors, and Writers) explains that some 20 years ago sponsors normally purchased a whole series of programs on television or radio -- Kraft, Hallmark, Texaco, and so on -- 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 diffuse their responsibility for any particular program among a half-dozen or more other sponsors.

Sponsors clearly 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 guide-line 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.5.

Mr. George H. Pruette, Jr. (Director of Public Affairs, Advertising, for General Motors) says that "General Motors believes that positioning our advertisements in an environment of exploitative sex and gratuitous violence which violate the accepted standards of a community is not in the best interests of either the Corporation or to the sale of its products."

David Levy, a life-long media insider, sums 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 is the economic reality which in many ways lies at the root of the problem, at least in television.

David Levy, a former network executive, TV producer and long-time observer of the media world, points out that two and three decades ago the networks found time for programs that were not sponsored at all but were provided, without charge, as a public service. Today this is no longer true, mainly because no network can afford to let the opposition get even slightly ahead in the ratings which determine the rates for hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising billings each year. To take a hypothetical example, if ABC and CBS can deliver 1000 viewers to an advertiser for $10, but NBC can deliver 1000 viewers for $9, then NBC is considered "number one" -- and all the sponsors will rush to it to get the better buy for the season. As Christine Foster says, "Let`s not kid ourselves, the network ratings race is business war."7.

This business war results in what media consultant and former NBC executive Paul Klein once called "the least objectionable programming" -- a schedule designed not to reach diverse audiences at different times with programming of considerable interest to them, but instead designed to reach the largest possible audience all the time. The latter requires programming that is as unobjectionable (not as entertaining or as enlightening) to as many people as possible. This practice is what makes so much television programming look the same: it has to be the same, to deliver the largest possible audience -- which is the "product" the networks sell to the sponsors -- for the smallest amount of dollars per viewer.

Given this system, advertisers are acting quite rationally when they buy the cheapest programs which reach the largest number of viewers with their message, regardless of quality. In fact, networks would be considered economically irresponsible by their stockholders if they did not provide the cheapest possible programs to reach the largest possible audience, regardless of content, in order to make the largest number of sales and profits.

But why does this economic system drive the actors, writers, directors, and producers to create gratuitous sex and violence?

Writer Robert Lee: "Is there too much violence on the airwaves, screens, stages of America? Of course there is. Why? It`s easier. It takes less ingenuity to get and hold an audience by hitting people on the head with a baseball bat than with an idea."

And Steve Bello, writer and producer of several TV hits, agrees: "It requires more time, effort and creativity to write and produce a segment that involves the interaction of three different people, than to do an equal amount of time of a car chase or shoot-out."8.

Cost savings, combined with what researcher Dr. Jerome Singer documents as the importance of movement and action as an immediate attention-getter, account for much of the pressure for gratuitous violence on the screens in our homes.

There are three major reasons for the high amount of sexual violence and overall violence in programs: (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 American corporate business, and (3) the failure of the Federal Communications Commission to exercise adequate oversight of broadcasting.

Sharon Maeda (public radio executive): "We need a change in the present rules governing the ownership of broadcast stations. There`s too much monopoly."9.

Robert Lee (playwright): "The airwaves are different from the theatre: they are yours and mine. The Broadcasting Act of 1934 was a Bill of Rights which requires responsibility. But we now have a third-rate lawyer as head of the FCC -- a man who has done more to jettison the intent of the Act than anyone else."10.

David Levy (Caucus of Producers, Directors and Actors): "Today the FCC shows absolutely no responsibility whatever. Mr. Fowler [then Chairman of the FCC] should resign -- a toothless tiger."11.

Deregulation of broadcasting and the FCC`s apparent indifference to the character and 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. What can be done? The study committee concluded: "The current philosophy of the FCC and the industry that marketplace forces will guarantee the provision of quality programming that will satisfy the public-interest is questioned by the creative elements in the industry and by this committee. There is widespread opinion that the guidance of programming should not be left to the interplay of market forces alone. The risks are too great to American families and to the functioning of our democratic system of government. In spite of industry claims to the contrary, the committee found no indication that audience members have any say in what should be in programs or how programs should be distributed."12.

Some Middle Axioms

Again, some middle axioms, statements that are less than fundamental principles but more than day-by-day strategies, may prove helpful as guidelines in considering what actions to take in response to the problem of media violence:

1. All mass-media are educational. Whether they deal with information, opinion, entertainment, escape, explicit behavior models, or subtle suggestion, the mass-media always, directly or indirectly, shape values.

2. Only a genuinely open marketplace of ideas can guarantee the search for truth. The First Amendment must be defended because it guarantees freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press. Society should seek to maximize the diversity of sources and ideas, and to minimize the power of government or individuals to block or constrict this diversity of sources.

3. Prior control of the content of media does exist in our society -- exercised by government, by business, by education, by the power of money and monopoly. With respect to any individual program, someone must decide what shall be included, or what is left out. The issue is not whether there should be prior control, but who should exercise it, and how it should be exercised.

4. Freedom must be exercised within a framework of responsibility.

5. The airwaves are held in trust for the public by radio and television broadcasters, and their licenses are regulated by government. While the broadcaster is therefore responsible for the content of programming, this right does not abridge the public`s "right to know" and to be fairly represented on the air.

6. Television and cable deliver unsolicited images into homes and, thus, are different from media which are sought by users on their own initiative. The television and cable industries, especially because the broadcast spectrum and wiring systems are limited, have a special responsibility to serve the public-interest.

7. Industry self-regulation should be supported. But self-regulation can be only a partial solution, because without governmental regulation the industry`s self-interest finally will take precedence over the public interest.

8. In any competitive business environment some rules are necessary to bring about positive change. Laws and governmental regulation are essential in dealing with reform in the communication industry because they can place all competitors on an equal basis and thus not disturb the working of the economic marketplace.

9. In the broadcast and film media, advance information about the products offered should be made available by the industry to parents to help them guide their children`s viewing.

Policy Recommendations

In the light of these middle axioms, there are several actions which the public and the churches should consider to help alleviate the problems related to violence and sexual violence in television. Since so much "television" now is actually cable-TV and videocassettes, these media also require consideration. It is important to note that each medium is subject to different regulations and therefore different solutions. While television stations are licensed by the FCC, cable systems receive local franchises for the right to string wires along city streets, and in this sense operate more like a telephone company than a television station. And videocassette stores are subject to zoning and other municipal laws regulating them as retail outlet stores.


The key to solving the problems of violence on television is basically for broadcasters to exercise their responsiblity to serve the public welfare. By "public welfare," I mean simply that which is suited to the needs and welfare of the community at large. 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, there is no way that the public can expect an industry that is engaged in a constant "business war" over ratings to take seriously its social obligation to reduce the amount of violence in its programming.

Broadcasting networks and stations should be required by the Federal Communications Commission to carry on all movies already rated by the Motion Picture Classification and Rating Administration the ratings now in use (G, PG, PG-13, R, and X), with additional short descriptive phrases that indicate the amount and intensity of violence in programs. 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.

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 mores. Participation in such consultations on the broadcasting side should require the presence of the highest-ranking decision makers of networks and stations.

Further actions can be taken regarding programming, without infringing on on the First Amendment rights of broadcasters. For example, there are more than 35 million children under the age of 12 in this country, yet there is not one regually scheduled daytime children`s programming on commercial network television. Networks and stations should be required by law to devote a percentage of their air time, production budgets, and facilities to children`s programming. This programming could be created and produced in cooperation with a broad spectrum of organizations and individuals with concern for children. In the case of local programming, a local Community Media Action Board could assist. Local groups could pool their production resources at the national level, thereby making possible nationally produced materials of high quality.

America remains the only developed nation that does not regulate its television industry to mandate that programmers provide for children. There is no Constitutional reason why television stations could be required by Act of Congress 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 which broadcasters must provide, and "children`s programs" could be such a category. Also, incentives could be provided to producers of creative children`s programming, just as such incentives now encourage urban housing, solar energy developments, educational organizations, and other areas which benefit the entire society.

Incidents of violence should not be included in commercial announcements, such as trailers that advertise violent movies. If violent commercials are run, then free counteradvertising time should be accorded to local community groups under the Fairness Doctrine. In the l960s when the FCC required stations to run counter advertisements 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 violent commercials.

If local communities take responsibility for that part of the education of their children which is occurring through television, local TV stations will pay attention. Traditionally, education has taken place in the public schools, and public school boards were set up in recognition of this fact. Members of school boards are elected to act on behalf of parents to oversee the process of education. But today children spend more hours watching television than they spend in school. Television has become the Great Teacher.

Therefore, what is now needed is some media-related equivalent of the local school board which can monitor the educational aspects of television in the community. One way to achieve this would be to establish local community Media Education Boards, which would not determine programs the stations would put on the air, but rather would assist radio and television stations in meeting the educational needs of the children in their community. Or, the local school board could regularly advise the local radio and TV stations regarding their educational obligations.

The National Education Association has announced plans to establish hundreds of local Teacher-Parent Partnerships which could form the basis of local monitoring groups to assess the effectiveness of radio and television stations in meeting the educational needs of their children. Other community groups, such as libraries, professional organizations, public health and safety agencies, the colleges and churches -- all could contribute to helping local stations focus much more on their educational obligation to the community.

"Education" here is not restricted to "instruction." Broadcasting from its very beginnings has had broadly educational impact which has never been properly recognized, and broadly educational potential which it has never realized. However, the development of local community groups to monitor local station responsibilities for children will not work unless deregulation is reversed and the FCC once again asserts its role of insuring that broadcasters meet their public service responsibilties.


Most distributors of films via satellite to cable systems (Home Box Office, Cinemax, Showtime, etc.) use the ratings of the Motion Picture Association of America. It would be a major step forward if the MPAA film-rating system were to be adopted by the cable industry. This step would involve a commitment on the part of 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 addition, under the Cable Communications Policy Act, cable operators are now required to make available by lease or sale a lock-box device which allows the subscriber to use a key to lock out the viewing of a particular cable service. However, the lock-box is not required as part of the basic channel selector supplied by the cable company. Since parents are required to make special provisions to get the lock-box feature, very few are actually in use. An even more significant step would be for the Congress to require all cable companies to make the lock-out feature available on all channel switching devices it normally provides to its subscribers. The lockout makes one or more channels temporarily unavailable.

In addition, cable companies should be required to place all R- and X- rated 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 number of stores renting and selling videocassettes has increased dramatically during the past decade. Fifty per cent of homes now have videocassettes, and this number is expected to increase steadily. The New York Times reports that dealers estimate that between 20% and 40% of cassettes rented in videostores are in the category of sexually explicit material. Virtually all of the R and PG-l3 films which contain violent and sexually violent material are available for sale in videocassette stores.

But videocassettes do not come into the home by the turn of a switch. In this sense they are more like books or magazines than television, and they are entitled to the same First Amendment protection that is accorded to books and magazines. On the other hand, videocassettes must be rented or purchased in retail stores in the local community, and are subject to the same municiple laws as other retail outlets. Therefore, the only action which is consistent with free expression, no matter how much some individuals may dislike the content of the videocassette, is to require that videos intended for adults (R-rated, X-rated and unrated) not be displayed prominently in storefronts and not sold or rented to persons under l7 years of age.

The First Amendment does not extend its protection of speech to children. The Supreme Court has taken the position that society has the obligation to make a judgment as to what speech is appropriate for children, just as persons under a certain age are not allowed to drink, drive, or vote. Thus, the sale to children of videocassettes which the society decides are inappropriate for them can be prohibited. However, to take more restrictive legal action with regard to adults would unduly restrict their First Amendment rights. 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 which may be objectionable to some.

The Public

There are several positive things which individuals and groups can do to deal with the problem of violence. First, community and church groups should encourage excellence.

We have mentioned in Chapter 7 the Humanitas Awards of the Paulists which have had a considerable positive effect on writers and producers in the industry. The Humanitas Award provides $10,000 for the best program each year that stresses ethical principles and eschews gratuitous violence. Also, for more than two decades the National Council of Churches has presented annual awards to films which "illumine the human condition." Clearly, the church and public, both nationally and perhaps even more importantly locally, could do much more to recognize and to encourage creative writers, directors, producers, sponsors, station performers, managers, and owners who strive to provide programs that uplift ethical values and humane relationships in their programming.

Another public strategy which holds considerable potential for affecting the directions the media take on violence, is corporate stockholder action. Holders of stock in companies which advertise on television or cable can call the attention of the officers and directors to the importance of adopting voluntary guidelines which would forbid sponsorship of programs with exploitative sex and gratuitous violence. This approach has been used by a number of public-interest groups, including churches, and has been found to be effective. However, far more attention by sponsors will be needed before reaching the "threshold point" which would send a clear signal to the industry that less violence is demanded. Such an approach should be given a high priority by public-interest groups and churches, since it is equitable, clear, and manageable.

A more drastic action is to initiate a petition to deny license renewal. Deregulation of radio and television by the FCC does not change the provisions of the Communications Act. Whether or not the FCC checks on their performance, stations are still required "to broadcast in the public-interest. . . " and to prove at renewal time that they have exercised responsible trusteeship in exchange for their licenses. In communities where there is dissatisfaction with the performance of one or more stations, public groups may legally file petitions with the FCC to deny license renewals. The current FCC majority may reject such petitions, but the petitioners have standing to challenge an FCC decision in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where adherence to the law may be expected. However, it requires considerable money, expertise and time to be successful in such litigation. The cases which the national church organizations won during the l960s and l970s took 5 to 15 years to complete.

A final word must be said about consumer boycott. Customer protest in front of stations, theaters or stores is entirely constitutional and is a part of the American way of life. So is the withholding of purchases from a store, theater or product. Boycotts have been attempted against major sponsors and television networks, but without any long-lasting effect.

But while boycott is a legal and sometimes effective tool in situations where litigation and other recourses have been exhausted, it also is a very blunt tool which easily gets out of control and can hurt innocent people. For example, the boycott of a particular national food supplier could have ripple effects which would hurt grocers, truck drivers, and even farmers. Boycotts therefore should be used only as a last resort, only after all legal remedies have been exhausted, and then with great restraint.


We have suggested several ways public interest groups can help the people in the creative and dynamic television industry to "do good work" -- to produce programs which entertain and delight millions but do so without the exploitative sex and gratuitous violence which clearly result in real-life violence and consequent damage to the quality of life for millions of people in our nation. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to speak whatever we wish, since one person`s heresy is another person`s truth. But the media industries hide behind this freedom, to the injury of all. Deciding where the middle way lies, which enables society to curb harmful violence without curbing freedom of speech, is difficult, and it will require us to consider what kind of society we really want.

Clearly, violence and sexual violence in the media must be reduced. The important thing to stress is that this goal can be attained without depriving those in the media of the means of livelihood or of the rewards which are justly theirs, and without depriving citizens of their First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. It will require concerned citizens to understand to extent to which the whole system of commercial broadcasting in America establishes an environment encouraging, not violent programming itself, but the conditions which 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, regardless of the number of statements viewing with alarm, or quality of the leaders deploring the situation, or the extent of boycotts of a network or station or program. In fact, such tactics as these often do more harm than good, since a they tend to draw off much of the rightful righteous indignation of community leaders into rhetoric with no real results.

The solution may require that the situation get even worse before citizens will act. The danger then is that the movement will be toward censorship rather than toward changing the system. It is to be hoped that, instead, cooler heads will prevail and that citizens, through their elected leaders, will create by law the incentives which will encourage the industry to reduce the violence while still making a good living. A single law requiring children`s programming in every community would be a good start. Expecting the FCC to regulate in the name of the citizens rather than the broadcasting industry would be another.

But these remedies will take time, education, and community action. And they will require exploring in considerably more depth another closely related issue -- the conflict between censorship and regulation of television.