The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Violence on Television
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. Jim Lehrer is off tonight. Is there too much violence on television? Does watching it make people more aggressive or less caring? Can TV violence inspire real-life violence? Whatever the correct answers to those questions may be, clearly a growing number of people think the answer is yes to all three. Jimmy Carter said in a recent interview that as President he wouldn`t hesitate to speak out to deplore the excessive violence, as he called it, in programming. Tonight we examine how the growing public concern makes itself felt in the television world. One program in particular this season has made more people ask questions about TV violence: the film "Death Wish", watched by millions on CBS-TV last night.
(Televised advertisement for "Death Wish")
BOY: There`s a lot of violence on TV. Like tonight, they`re going to give "Death Wish". They gave that picture in the movies. How`s my little brother going to see that? There`s all that violence...
INTERVIEWER: Have you seen "Death Wish"?
BOY: Yep. In the movies. I though that picture would never come on TV.
INTERVIEWER:` How old are you?
INTERVIEWER: What kind of ideas did you get from "Death Wish"?
BOY: Bad ideas, of course.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think it really affected you?
BOY: Not that much, but if my little brother sees it, he`s only eight years old; it`ll probably affect him.
BOY: Like, he`ll start fighting, try to do the same thing they did in the picture -- kill the muggers, all that kind of stuff.
MacNEIL: If you, like that young man, had already seen the 11 killings, three beatings, the rape and vandalism of "Death Wish"; or. didn`t want to see them, you might have tuned to ABC, where from 9 to 11 p.m. last night you would have seen one killing, two shootings and three fights. Over on NBC the prime-time body count for the same two hours included three killings and four fist fights. "Death Wish" got an average 33.4 overnight rating in New York -- twice that of its competitors. It probably did well in other parts of the country, too. But four CBS affiliate stations in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Hartford and Jacksonville, Florida refused to show "Death Wish", even after the network had made more than 30 cuts to tone down the film`s violent content. These stations objected to the remaining violence and to the movie`s apparent endorsement of vigilante justice. Les Brown reports on radio and television for the New York Times. He`s the author of Television: The Business Behind the Box. Mr. Brown, is "Death Wish" an isolated Incident, or are network affiliates being more choosey about what violence they`ll accept?
LES BROWN: Some are being more choosey; we saw that with "Helter-Skelter" last year. But I suspect that the drop-out stations with "Death Wish" yesterday will have no more effect on the total rating and the national rating and distribution of "Death Wish". "Helter-Skelter", when it was shown, had about ten or twelve stations defecting from the CBS lineup, including the Los Angeles station, which had to for other reasons; and yet it was the highest rated program of the year last year. What happens when an affiliate drops out and declines to carry a program, often, is that another station in the market that- is independent and not affiliated would pick it up- and when a program is popular, as "Death Wish" promised to be, or "Helter-Skelter" promised to be that independent station carrying it gets a huge rating.
MacNEIL: And stations doing that sort of thing very often would have to be worried about losing their affiliation, I assume.
BROWN: Well, that`s true. They also have to be worried about losing their audiences. Many stations that even have great convictions about television violence don`t give up the programs because if they do that they give away audience to their competition, so in self-defense they carry it.
MacNEIL: How many affiliates would have to say no to a program to have the network pull it?
BROWN: Assuming that no UHF station in the market would pick it up, perhaps 20; and they would have to be in -- it`s a little hard to say. It depends on the size of the city, of course. A series pro gram that starts with a short line-up -- there are 217 stations in the NBC family, about 210 in the CBS -- if only four don`t carry it, that`s not a very significant number. However, the affiliated stations are analogous to newsstands; if they close down, they don`t distribute the product. If a significant number close down, then the product doesn`t get distributed well.
MacNEIL: How much weight do affiliate opinions carry in things like the violence content of programs?
BROWN: Not a great deal, I would say; it carries some theoretical weight with the networks -- the networks always try to please their affiliates, and by the same token, the Affiliates try to please the networks, too, and they make concessions to the networks. The game, of course, is ratings -- the bottom line -- the ratings pay off in money, and they`re both interested in the same thing. They`re each interested in ratings and the money that goes with the rating.
MacNEIL: Thank YOU. The question of violent television -- how much is too much, and how it may affect us -- has been debated by the public and the Congress since the early 1950`s. In 1972, after spending close to $2 million on research, the U.S. Surgeon General published a five-volume study which concluded that violence on television may cause violent impulses in some people some of the time. More recently other researchers have suggested that TV violence begetting real-life violence isn`t the most important issue. Dr. George Geobner of the Annenberg School of Communications believes, for instance, that an overdose of TV violence makes people passive and frightened, thus making them better victims. It`s a subject that baffles many experts and leaves them very tentative in offering answers. Not so the general public.
MARGUERITE ROBEY, Nurse: I have very strong feelings. I think it`s a highly negative influence, not only on youth but on older people; I think people have become desensitized to others` pain and to what may be the consequences of the violence. You know, when you just see the shots of somebody being killed, or whatever, there isn`t any thought of what`s happening to the other people involved; and I think it`s really a very seriously wrong thing that television has been subverted in this way. And I personally simply do not watch it. If I see any sign that it`s going to turn this way, I turn it off.
ROSALYN PORTER, Student: When I watch TV, I watch TV to enjoy myself. Like, if I want to watch a lot of violence, I just look out the window -- you know. I don`t really have to watch TV for that, so it`s a waste of my time. I want to see something funny -- you know, something interesting, not just violence; I mean, you don`t have to watch TV for that.
MacNEIL: One group trying to arouse public concern about what`s seen on television is the National Citizens` Committee for Broadcasting. Its chairman is Nicholas Johnson, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission, and he`s with us in Washington. Mr. Johnson, what is your organization going about violence on television?
NICHOLAS JOHNSON: Doing, I think, is the important distinction here, Robin. There`s been a lot of talk about violence, and I contributed to it as an FCC commissioner. What we`re doing is watching television and monitoring it, and also noting which advertisers are most associated with that violent programming and then merely publishing that fact. And I can tell you on our last report, for example, that the five, say, who were most associated with violent programming were Tegrin Shampoo, Burger King, Clorox, Colgate- Palmolive, Gillette Hair` Products. Now, the mere publication of that does tend to have an impact on what programs they want to sponsor, how potential consumers . respond to that, what advertising agencies do. And that is beginning to have an impact, and I think we may see more improvement in this situation in the next 18 months than we`ve seen in the last 18 years.
MacNEIL: Who do you think is ultimately responsible, Mr. Johnson, for the amount of violence on television?
JOHNSON: Well, It`s obviously the advertisers and the network executives; they`re the ones who use this medium which is, as you know, on the commercial side at least, an advertising medium. It`s a way of selling the audience to the advertiser; it almost has nothing to do with programming. Programming, and particularly violent programming, is a cheap trick, a gimmick, a way of getting the audience to watch the commercials. So that`s where the pressure has to be applied and that`s where we`re trying to apply it in a way that I think is well within the first amendment. It does not involve government actions or sanctions of any kind; we joined with the Writers` Guild in opposing the family viewing hour and recently won that lawsuit, as you may know, on the West Coast. This is strictly a citizens` do it-yourself project, and the kind of public outrage that those interviews reflected is what we get in our mail and from our members of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting as well.
MacNEIL: I see; well, thank you. We`ll come back. The idea of viewers tuning out violent programs is a chilling one for companies that are paying in the neighborhood of $100,000 or more per minute to advertise their products on television. A survey by J. Walter Thompson, the world`s largest ad agency, recently showed that 35 percent of this country`s TV viewers say they avoid violent programs. 4.5 percent of those surveyed say they`ve thought about not buying a product advertised on a show with physical violence or brutality. And a small group even claimed they`d actually stopped buying products of companies sponsoring violent programming.
PAUL FORSTER, Lawyer: I think that the public should just ... the public is stopping watching some of these shows. I wouldn`t want to see censorship, but I think there should be more awareness on the part of the public of the sponsors that are sponsoring these, and I would support a boycott of the firms that sponsor these kinds of shows.
MacNEIL: Let`s get the view of somebody in the advertising world or connected with it. Bob Donath is Associate Editor for Advertising Age, a trade journal that follows developments in the advertising industry. Mr. Donath, is the industry worried about people tuning out of shows because of violence?
BOB DONATH: Most definitely; that`s the one thing that could upset the apple cart. The big interest in advertising...
MacNEIL: Is this a genuine worry about the economic effect, or just; it sounds good to be worried -- PR worry?
DONATH: There are two dimensions to that. Yes, it sounds good to be worried, and many companies have put out a great deal of publicity opposing violence on TV. On the other hand, a boycott draws undue attention to marketing your product and gives you more of a hassle than you could have or should have if you could go to non-violent programs. and avoid this kind of public disgrace.
MacNEIL: Are they taking the threat of boycott seriously? I mean, is this something realistic, or would it be so marginal as not to make a difference -- or don`t they know?
DONATH: No, this is a realistic threat, I think, because of Jimmy Carter`s statements tacitly endorsing consumer boycott. J. Walter Thompson, for example, specifically pointed to a boycott as one of the major threats involved with advertising on violent programs, and concluded, therefore, that if you have at all a choice between two equally rated programs, go for the non-violent one simply because of this boycott threat.
MaCNEIL: Is there a common industry line on violence in television at the moment? What`s the word going around?
DONATH: The word going around is the increasing popularity of avoiding violent programs. The trouble is that advertising has to be very bottom- line oriented. Tremendous amounts of money are being tossed in. General Foods, for example, to take one advertiser, spends about $35 million in prime-time TV each year. Now, that company has come out and said that it avoids violent programming wherever possible -- it`s asked other companies to join in. But companies would like to see more research that can prove to them conclusively, and that advertising agencies can take to their clients to prove conclusively, that they should not be on a violent program. The trouble is that as long as a rating is high for a violent program nobody has any way of knowing whether a commercial will be less effective on a highly rated violent program than it would be on an equivalently rated non- violent program.
MacNEIL: With scatter-plan commercial insertion so much the case nowadays instead of direct sponsorship of a program, how much control does a sponsor actually have on the content of a program like that?
DONATH: Relatively little compared to the days when television started,- when companies were sponsoring an entire program and kept a very close identity with the program. As a matter of fact, this fall, Bob, there`s been such a tight market for TV time -- very much a seller`s market -- that it`s been tough for companies to be able to pick and choose whether they will get on TV, and this tightness is expected to continue into next year.
MacNEIL: Thank you. For all the public`s concern about television violence there is little question that, like it or not, people are watching it. While they may not be quite as popular this -year-as they were last season, several action dramas, most of them involving some form of crime fighting, are in the top ten. For some, the problem is not TV violence itself, but the way in which it`s shown.
PEG GRAYSON, Restaurant Owner: In the earlier TV programs -- the 1950`s, early `60`s -- they played up shooting and guns, but they played down the actual impact; and I think it`s important for people to know that if somebody gets shot they really get hurt. And it`s not a game. If someone gets shot their face is going to blow off. And if they`re going to know it and they`re going to see it, then it should be shown.
MacNEIL: One action drama with something of a reputation for realism is "Kojak", which is currently filming on location here in New York City. James McAdams is the producer of "Kojak" -- he`s also worked on such programs as "Ironside" and "The Virginian". Mr. McAdams, is television dangerously sanitizing violence, as that woman suggested?
JAMES McADAMS: Well, in my view, it is. I think that`s always been a danger on television in going back to that period in the `60`s when no one ever dealt with the human emotions involved in violence. Now, I think that`s a producer`s responsibility; there are a lot of responsibilities along the line, but ultimately that`s story-telling. That goes back to sitting, down and talking about a concept for a story and that`s one of my biggest drives, is that we don`t slough off violence, we don`t .... you know, I`ve seen television shows and we`ve been guilty of it from time to time, too, of gun battles that go on and we cut to a scene a moment later and people are in a totally different frame of mind, whereas in reality, I`ve talked to people who`ve been involved in actual situations and they are continually haunted for the rest of their lives by these incidents.
MacNEIL: Especially shook up for a few hours afterwords.
MacNEIL: Let me ask you, how are you as a producer of action programs feeling this public concern that we`ve been talking about, about violence - - and are you?
McADAMS: Well, I share it. I mean, I can only speak for myself; I think it`s not so much there was a time early, when I started producing, where there was a discussion about, let`s not do dull programming -- we need dramatic excitement, dramatic action, which is a euphemism for -- in some cases, a euphemism for -- violence. You can`t do a talk show; "talk show" - - it`s too dull for the public to sit through. And I think it`s an excuse for lazy writing, it`s an excuse for lazy producing, and also it`s a responsibility of a network and advertisers and the public, ultimately, because we do feel that pressure.
MaCNEIL: Has the concern caused you to modify the violence used in "Kojak" over the last few years?
McADAMS: I personally feel that "Kojak" has never been a particularly violent show; but I was talking to one of our people the other day, and we`ve now gone on a point system. The networks are using -at least CBS is using -- a point system of each show has a number of dramatic, I mean, of violent incidents within them, and you have a score for the year. And they are watching that very carefully, because they don`t want to see an increase in violence on their dramatic shows. And of course, from year two to year three on "Kojak" we had a 36 percent reduction in violence. Now, this is not something we sat around and felt -- you know, "This week we`re down ten percent..." you know.
MacNEIL: Take out two more killings there...
MCADAMS: I think we`re feeling what is happening in reaction to violence. We live in a violent society; no one is more exposed to violence in this country than a police officer, so we can`t -- you know, it`s not situation comedy; we have to deal with those realities. But I don`t think that it`s a question so much of reaction and pulling back as much as our own responsibility as producers of the television show.
MacNEIL: Let me bring the others in, and go back to you for a moment, Mr. Johnson, in Washington. Among the ten top shows this year -- the top rated shows on commercial network television -- there are apparently fewer violent shows than there were last year. Last year the shows in the top ten that were considered quite violent were "Baretta", "Starsky and Hutch", "Police Woman", "The Six-Million Dollar Man", and "Kojak". With apologies to Mr. McAdams, "Kojak" doesn`t appear in that top ten at the moment, and only "Biretta" of those does. Doesn`t that suggest to you maybe the networks have got the message already, and that your campaign is following in that wake?
JOHNSON: Well, I think the people are giving them the message. The shows canceled -- we also rate the shows, the ten most violent, the ten least violent. Of the ten least violent shows in our last rating, all of those continue in the schedule; of the ten most violent, four of them have been canceled "Kojak", according to our ranking, is 25 out of 63. And since I`m the only person here speaking for public interest groups I should follow up, if I may, with Mr. McAdams with a question. Because the American Medical Association now is very concerned about violence on television as a health problem, the National PTA is involved and will be conducting monitoring around the United States, we`ve been working with them as a consultant; Action for Children`s Television, other groups would love to put some questions to you, Mr. McAdams. I bring back this clipping from the Miami Herald, a recent report by Detective Ed Haneck of the Miami Police Department who apprehended a 17-year old Miami youth who had raped a seven- year old, assaulted a second and would have gone after a third but for the fact that she escaped. He happened to remember that this incident had occurred the evening before on an episode of "Kojak". And he put the question to the young man and discovered, yes, indeed, "Kojak" was one of his most favorite programs.
MacNEIL: What`s your question to Mr. McAdams?
JOHNSON: The question is, you know, how does he feel about this direct imitation of violence, if nothing else -- he`s the producer of this program. I appreciate the fact that you`re 25th out of the 63 programs in the most violence, according to our rating; but-how-do you feel about a fact like this -- here are some kids that have been injured.
MacNEIL: How do you feel?
McADMS: I think there`s been a lot of talk about instructive violence in the last few years, and I do think there is a danger; I wish- I knew what episode you were talking about. But there have been a lot of incidents cited where actual crimes had resulted and they were purported to be related to something the person had been exposed to on television. I think that`s a question of...You cannot take full responsibility for everybody in this country who`s going to be set off, in one way or another, by something they`ve read, something they`ve seen, or whether they`ve paid five dollars to see it in a movie house. But I do think, going back to the fact that the producer has a responsibility, that if you do a show that contains violence it has to be put in some perspective, it has to be dealt with there.
MacNEIL: Let me go back to my question and ask Les Brown of the New York Times -- do you think the networks have already in this season got the message of this concern and are consciously reducing the amount of violence? Are we on the way down in it?
BROWN: Yes, I suppose we are. It`s still a ---I think that Jim called it a gimmick -- it`s still a good gambit, and when a program is in trouble or a network is in trouble it`s going to increase the violence content.
MacNEIL: You mean quite deliberately and calculatedly?
BROWN: Yes, I think so, in spite of themselves. Of course they`re aware of it; there has been a hue and cry and it`s gotten to them. The advertisers have gotten to them and they have a great awareness of this and they`re trying to cut back violence, but you see, violence they find to be interesting -- it`s actionful -- and there`s always the sense that somebody on the other network is doing something more exciting, and it equates with excitement. So if they put on talking heads and the other two have actionful shows they feel they may lose audience.
MacNEIL: Mr. Johnson, you said you`d won the victory over the family hour; NBC said today it wasn`t going to appeal that. In other words, I would interpret that as meaning it`s going to disregard the family hour. I wonder if that isn`t going to open up another hour of potentially violent programming -- if that won`t be the effect of it. What do you think?
JOHNSON: It may be; I would doubt it. Our position, ironically, we are perceived, often, as an anti-network organization. In point of fact, we do go to the defense on freedom-of-speech issues often in ways that the broadcasters themselves won`t do. So we did with journalists and journalistic freedom in the time of Nixon-Agnew`s attacks, and so we`re doing now with the effort to control content of programs by the FCC which we thought was inappropriate. But I think that the networks. probably have learned a lesson from this and will exercise some discretion; but, yes, it does open up that hour. The point is, that was a fraud all along. You`ve got millions of young kids watching television at eight, nine, ten, even midnight. There`s no way that keeping off violence prior to eight o`clock is going to solve this problem.
MacNEIL: I see. We obviously live -- somebody mentioned this -- in a very violent society; isn`t it natural in a violent society to expect its mass entertainment to retail what is so common in real life? Isn`t that just inevitable in a culture that is violent, to enjoy violence in its entertainment?
DONATH: I would think so, yes. It makes sense, because people are reading about violence in the newspapers every day; to that extent it shouldn`t surprise them too much to find violence on television. So I guess I`d have to agree with that, that we have a violent history in this country.
MacNEIL: But do you think, even given that, that there`s responsibility for a producer to in some way interrupt the circular flow and...
McADAMS: Yes. I don`t think you can display violence and not comment on it in some meaningful way. I think that`s part of the problem, is that of a callous approach to violence. You know, people are mowed down in wholesale numbers and nobody reacts, nobody puts-it into any kind of context -- what does it mean, why is it happening in this country, what can be done to stop it? I mean, we are in the entertainment business, but by the same token we have to have some responsible attitude toward our audience, and I don`t think that`s always the case.
DONATH: I think we`ve got a real problem here; we`re raising a very serious question about society and what kinds of roles the media are going to define as far as dictating public taste. Violence is quite often good box office; true, you have fewer top-rated programs now than you did last year. The point is that many popular programs continue to be violent. Should this by fiat be taken away from the people? Why do the people want this in the first place? Because they enjoy it. If, in fact -- looking at it from the advertiser`s viewpoint -- if in fact these programs are good, salable vehicles, can anybody come along, really, by fiat, or even the producers, and uniformly -- sort of in an anti-trust way -- dictate anti-violent material?
MacNEIL: But you have confidence the market-place will sort this out, do you?
DONATH: I don`t have confidence. There`s so little research been done, and there`s some points of psychological theory that at least seem very preliminary that might suggest that violent programming might enhance the value of TV commercials.
BROWN: I wouldn`t leave it to the market-place my ... are we out of time?
MacNEIL: I`m afraid we are, yes. And I was going to thank you all and thank Nick Johnson in Washington. I`m sorry.
JOHNSON: I was just going to hope for some balance in the programming of values other than those represented by violence as a means of resolving disputes.
MacNEIL: Okay. Thank you, Mr. Johnson, and thank you all. I`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Violence on Television
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- The main topic of this episode is Violence on Television. The guests are Les Brown, Bob Donath, James McAdams, Nicholas Johnson. Byline: Robert MacNeil
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