DESPITE HIGH RATINGS FOR VIOLENT SHOWS, REVULSION IS GROWING OVER BLOODSHED ON TV
SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER
It was a standard evening’s fare on primetime television. In a mere two hours last week, Canadians could watch a serial killer stalk prostitutes on a Delaware highway—and claim his third victim.
They could also choose between programs involving a rape trial, drug arrests led by heavily armed detectives and the abduction of two children from their mother’s arms. To conclude the evening, they could watch a movie about a Chicago lawyer who bludgeons his wife to death before an accomplice shoots her in the head and dumps her body into a canal. According to George Gerbner, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, prime-time dramatic programming in North America features an average of six to eight acts of violence an hour—and two murders each evening. Despite advertisers’ support and high ratings for some violent TV shows, there is a growing revulsion among viewers to the bloodshed and violent death on the small screen. On Nov. 18, 14-year-old Virginie Larivière, of StPolycarpe, Que., presented federal officials with a petition signed by nearly 1.3 million Canadians and personally asked Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for legislation to limit television violence (page 46).
The petition rekindled a simmering debate over the effect of violence on TV audiences. During his meeting with Larivière, whose younger sister was raped and murdered last March, the Prime Minister issued a blunt warning to private broadcasters: cut down on violent programming or the federal government will legislate restrictions. Still, senior Canadian television executives maintained that they are already carrying a lower number of violent programs than they did a few years ago. They also argued that if Ottawa forces them to cut back further, they risk losing viewers to American stations. Meanwhile, some of the action dramas currently being shown on North American television are being produced in Canada (page 48).
Teachers and child-care workers say that violence in television and
movies may be one of the factors contributing to violent crime in Canada. Said Tannis Williams, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and editor of a 1986 book, The Impact of Television: “It has been shown that exposure to violence in the media desensitizes people. It has a negative effect on people and leads to aggressive behavior in some viewers.”
Many researchers say that violent TV and movie images lead to increased violence in society (page 50). They also point out that children witness an enormous amount of violence on television. Gregory Fouts, a
psychology professor at the University of Calgary who has studied the effect of television on the behavior of children, says that there are, on average, 25 to 27 acts of violence an hour in children’s programming, which is made up largely of cartoons. Brian Bontekoe, who teaches media literacy at the Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Ontario, said that television producers rely on visually jarring and noisy scenes, or “jolts per minute,” to hold the attention of their viewers.
Death: Many parents say that they are disturbed about the effect that depictions of violence may be having on their children. “I am very concerned about the impact that some of these shows are having on our daughter,” said Donald Mills, a Halifax businessman who has a 14-year-old son and a daughter of 11. “She is very frightened of being home alone. All of these crimes against women, which are displayed in the media, have made our daughter extremely cautious.” Other parents complain that TV violence is so routine that even death scenes barely make an impact on children. Sharon Richardson, a Montreal human-resources consultant and mother of Graham, 15, and Gillian, 11, said that she sometimes makes her children turn off the TV set in the middle of a program because of the violence. Said Richardson: “Once Graham told me, ‘It wasn’t violent, it was just clean shooting.’ He thinks I cj that’s not violence, because he saw 5: no pain. I said, ‘Wait a minute, you I just saw people shot. Their lives were I z ended.’ And he answered, ‘But there was no suffering.’ ”
Several citizens’ groups have begun lobbying the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for regulations that would limit TV violence. “We believe the overwhelming weight of research points to the harmful effects of violence on television,” said Rose Dyson, chairman of the Toronto-based Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment. “Yet there has been a continuing disregard by the industry to those harmful effects.”
While critics of television violence say that children are the viewers most likely to be harmed, teenagers themselves are divided about the effect that TV violence has on them. Jeremy Keyes, 16, a Grade 11 student in Halifax, said that boredom is the major cause of teenage
crime. “I don’t go out and act out all the violence I see on television,” said Keyes. “Unless you’re a psycho or a degenerate, you know the difference between right and wrong.” According to several students, news programs are frequently more violent than police or drama shows. Said Rebecca Hunt, 16, a Grade 11 student in Calgary: “I don’t take seriously someone being killed in a TV show. But when I see it on the news it worries me.”
Confronted by criticism of network programming, many TV executives say that they are now filling their prime-time slots with family dramas and comedies instead of police and other action dramas. Gary Maavara, for one, vice-president of operations and corporate planning with Toronto-based CTV Television Network Ltd., said that the network’s most popular weeknight evening shows include America’s Funniest People, Roseanne, Unsolved Mysteries and A Different World. Added Maavara: “The real gore that people find objectionable is for the most part produced by Hollywood.”
TV executives also say that the growing popularity of reality-based programs, including Rescue 911, Top Cops and America’s Most Wanted, has led to a reduction in the number of fictional police dramas such as Picket Fences. They also argue that although programs of that type frequently contain violent scenes, they play a socially beneficial role by recreating actual crimes and tragedies. “It is important that real life be examined,” said Moses Znaimer, president and executive producer of CITY TV in Toronto. “The last thing that any intelligent person wants is a witch-hunt that places a chill on the examination of life.”
Indeed, Znaimer accused Ottawa of arousing “misplaced hysteria” against network television by threatening to legislate controls on programming. He said that the TV networks, including the CBC and CTV in Canada and NBC, ABC and CBS in the United States, have become much less powerful during the past decade because of the growth of specialty television services and pay TV. Znaimer said that most Canadian households are wired into cable systems that give them access to anywhere from 30 to 50 channels. Added Znaimer: “The public is extremely powerful, because the public has alternatives. If you want wall-to-wall Anne of Green Gables, you can get it.”
In Canada, the publicly owned CBC views itself as an alternative to the commercially driven networks and corporation officials say that they try to minimize violence in CBC programming. Phyllis Platt, director of network programming for English-language TV, said that the CBC does not carry American-made cartoons on Saturday mornings because they generally contain too many scenes depicting violence. Platt added that the network also avoids reality-based programming. Said Platt: “As a corporation, we take a tremendous amount of care with issues like violence and language.”
As well, defenders of the networks point out that some of the worst violence is contained in movies that are playing in theatres or are available on cassettes that people can rent from neighborhood video rental stores. Said David Mintz, president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Global Communications Ltd.: “There is violence in our society and violence in our communications media. Most of the violence is coming from the cinemas and the video stores, which is an outgrowth of the cinema.”
Crime: Many critics of prime-time television, including psychologists, sociologists and educational researchers, contend that program producers continue to rely heavily on violence for purely economic reasons. Gerbner, who is regarded as one of North America’s leading experts on mass media, said that network TV executives have always opted for violent programming because it is cheaper to produce than sophisticated drama, and it is far more profitable. He said that action shows require less talented, less expensive actors than drama. As well, networks have found that violent shows sell much more quickly than drama or comedy in foreign markets. Said Gerbner: “Violence travels well in foreign markets. It is a low-cost, high-circulation commodity.”
According to Gerbner, the economics of violence are an even greater force in children’s programming. Violence, he says, is much easier to depict in cartoons than humor. Producers of cartoons rely on an assembly-line approach to chum out sixto eight-minute episodes, each with standard plots and characters. He said that producers can develop new cartoons merely by using the same plots and types of characters, but by changing the cast. The result is what he calls a “video ghetto for
TELEVISION MAY ALSO BE HARMING STUDENTS’ ABILITY TO LEARN
children, a slum full of high-density, cheaply produced, extremely lucrative programming.”
Among many Canadian parents, there are growing concerns that television violence is leading to increased aggression, hostility and crime. Figures published by Statistics Canada appear to confirm public concerns about rising crime. According to the federal agency, there were almost 300,000 violent crimes of all types committed across the country last year, up from 41,000 in 1962—a 700-per-cent increase. Juveniles between the ages of 12 and 17 committed 15,000 violent crimes last year, up from only 3,800 a decade earlier.
Still, some experts say that the increase in violent crime is actually a result of changes in the way that offences are reported. Elliott Leyton, an anthropologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., and author of a 1986 best-seller on serial killers, said that because more Canadians now consider domestic abuse of women and children a crime, those offences are being reported more frequently.
Leyton added that murder and car theft are the only two crimes that have been consistently and accurately reported throughout that period. Said Leyton: “Everybody reports a car theft because they want to collect the insurance. And murders get reported because it is too hard to hide a body.
All the other figures are incredibly political and subject to manipulation.”
Sexual: Critics of TV violence say that one insidious aspect is that the consequences of violence are rarely shown on the screen. Gerbner, for one, notes that on television, violent acts occur quickly and neatly, victims do not appear to suffer, and the shows have happy endings. There is some evidence that some teenagers plot violent crimes based on what they have seen on television or in the movies. In October, 1989, two Burlington,
Ont., teenagers, Steven Olah, who was 18 at the time, and James Ruston, then 17, murdered a 44-year-old department store executive in a gasstation kiosk as part of a bungled robbery. They killed the man by hitting him over the head more than 30 times with a fire extinguisher. During their trial, on charges of first-degree murder, Olah told the court that the two youths thought they could knock the victim unconscious with a couple of blows. “We’ve seen it in the movies all the time,” Olah testified.. “You hit him once and down he goes.”
Many child-care professionals ar-
gue that TV violence is rarely the only cause of crime, or even the most important factor. Toronto psychiatrist Richard Meen said that he works with street kids and treats several hundred runaway children every year. He added that almost all the children he meets are fleeing from physical, sexual or emotional abuse at home. When those children commit violent acts, he said, they are usually repeating the type of behavior they have witnessed or experienced in the home. Added Sgt. Dennis Osse, an RCMP officer in Langley, B.C.: “I have been doing this job too long to think that watching a movie is going to be an instigating factor in turning a kid into a bank
robber, without that kid having some predisposition to behaving in a criminal way.”
Rude: Other child-care professionals insist that TV violence is at least contributing to the increasingly aggressive behavior of children. Alan Leschied, assistant director of the London, Ont., Family Court Clinic, said that the facility treats about 200 adolescents a year from across southwestern Ontario. He said that all the children are facing criminal charges and have been referred by the courts. Leschied said that when he began working at the clinic 15 years ago, most children were charged with theft, breaking and entering or other property crimes. Now, almost half the boys who are referred to the clinic are charged with sexual offences.
Many teachers support the claim that television is having a major effect on the way children behave. Keith Stickings, principal of Queen Elizabeth High School in Halifax, said that many students are aggressively rude, behavior he attributes to the influence of television and popular music. “The ignorance of what is appropriate behavior is shocking,” said Stickings. Ian Malcolm, a high school drama and English teacher in Kingston, Ont., said that students unconsciously learn and mimic aggressive attitudes from television, even from apparently harmless situation comedies. Said Malcolm: “I have frequently seen violent reactions to authorities’ attempts to set standards. Some students resort to angry language and fists really fast. And they are prickly with each other and with teachers.”
Besides influencing behavior, television may also be affecting students’ ability to learn. Malcolm said that students raised on television are passive, have short attention spans and become twitchy in class quickly. He added that teachers have to jolt their students frequently with startling information to keep their attention. Added Kingston’s Brian Bontekoe: “We are living in a visual age and kids rely on what they see on a screen. Students have no patience for dialogue or subtle humor. They want action.” Although most Canadian parents
have been slow to express their discontent with television programming, the 20,000-member Action for Children’s Television has scored a significant political victory in the United States. Committee president Peggy Chairen, a 64-year-old grandmother from Cambridge, Mass., said that the organization convinced Congress to pass the Children’s Television Act in October, 1990. The law, which came into effect a year later, stipulates that broadcasters have to serve the “educational and informational needs” of children or face the risk of losing their broadcast licences.
Still, a review by consumer groups of 58 stations in August revealed that none had produced new programming to comply with the law. Instead, they had simply relabelled existing programs, in many cases cartoons, as educational.
Said Charren: “The broadcasters are in trouble now.
They were thumbing their nose at the Children’s Tele-
vision Act, and you can’t really do that to Congress.”
Meanwhile, Canadian broadcasters say that the federal government may find it difficult, if not impossible, to adopt content regulations. Michael McCabe, president of the Ottawabased Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said that any law aimed at curbing TV violence would likely violate the freedom of expression provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He added that even if Ottawa imposed restrictions on violent programs, many Canadians viewers could simply switch channels and watch the same shows on American-based stations. Said McCabe: “The government is creating expectations they cannot fulfil.”
Unease: Canadian broadcasters already have a voluntary code on TV violence, introduced in 1987, which encourages them to avoid showing excessively violent shows early in the evening. It also contains provisions dealing with violence against women, children and members of ethnic groups. CRTC chairman Keith Spicer said that the commission has asked broadcasters to develop new, more stringent guidelines. He added that the commission may use compliance with those guidelines as a criterion for renewing licences. Said Spicer: “The course we intend to hold to is a civilized balance between freedom of speech and social responsibility.”
Despite the growing public unease about violence on television, most broadcasters insist that they are merely providing the type of entertainment that viewers want. CTV’s Maavara noted that the movie-going public continues to line up and pay to see such violent movies as the recently released box-office hit Home Alone 2. The movie, starring Macaulay Culkin, is a sequel to the 1990 movie about an eight-year-old boy whose parents inadvertently leave him at home when they go on vacation. In both the original and the sequel, the boy is forced to defend himself against two incompetent burglars. The sequel, which contains scenes depicting an exploding head and an electrocution, attracted five million viewers and grossed $33 million in its first week. Said Maavara: “People say they’re concerned with violence and action, but they’re still lining up to see this stuff.”
Indeed, the broadcasters argue that the Canadian public, rather than the federal government, possesses the power to stop violent programming. “The real power of the public is to ignore the material,” said CITY TV’s Znaimer. “If enough viewers don’t watch it, it will disappear in a second. Nothing speaks louder to producers and distributors. People sign a petition, look to government to salve their conscience, then go home and watch the stuff.” Still, mounting concern about violence on home screens—and Virginie Larivière’s heavily backed petition—may be evidence that the old patterns of acceptance are changing where TV violence is concerned.
D’ARCY JENISH with JOHN DeMONT in Halifax, SHARON DOYLE DR1EDGER in Toronto, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and ADRIENNE WEBB in Vancouver