Television Violence and You


How to Cite

Fowles, J. (2000). Television Violence and You: Introduction. M/C Journal, 3(1).
Vol. 3 No. 1 (2000): Audience
Published 2000-03-01


Television has become more and more restricted within the past few years. Rating systems and "family programming" have taken over the broadcast networks, relegating violent programming, often some of the most cutting edge work in television, to pay channels. There are very few people willing to stand up and say that viewers -- even young children -- should be able to watch whatever they want, and that viewing acts of violence can actually result in more mature, balanced adults.

Jib Fowles is one of those people. His book, The Case For Television Violence, explores the long history of violent content in popular culture, and how its modern incarnation, television, fulfils the same function as epic tragedy and "penny dreadfuls" did -- the diverting of aggressive feelings into the cathartic action of watching. Fowles points out the flaws in studies linking TV violence to actual violence (why, for example, has there been a sharp decline in violent crime in the U.S. during the 1990s when, by all accounts, television violence has increased?), as well as citing overlooked studies that show no correlation between viewing and performing acts of violence. The book also demonstrates how efforts to censor TV violence are not only ineffective, but can lead to the opposite result: an increase in exposure to violent viewing as audiences forsake traditional broadcast programming for private programming through pay TV and videocassettes.

The revised excerpt below describes one of the more heated topics of debate -- the V-Chip.

Television Violence and You

Although the antiviolence fervor crested in the US in the first half of the 1990s, it also continued into the second half. As Sissela Bok comments: "during the 1990s, much larger efforts by citizen advocacy groups, churches, professional organizations, public officials, and media groups have been launched to address the problems posed by media violence" (146).

It continues as always. On the one side, the reformist position finds articulation time and again; on the other side, the public's incessant desire for violent entertainment is reluctantly (because there is no prestige or cachet to be had in it) serviced by television companies as they compete against each other for profits.

We can contrast these two forces in the following way: the first, the antitelevision violence campaign, is highly focussed in its presentation, calling for the curtailment of violent content, but this concerted effort has underpinnings that are vague and various; the second force is highly diffused on the surface (the public nowhere speaks pointedly in favor of violent content), but its underpinnings are highly concentrated and functional, pertinent to the management of disapproved emotions.

To date, neither force has triumphed decisively. The antiviolence advocates can be gratified by the righteousness of their cause and sense of moral superiority, but violent content continues as a mainstay of the medium's offerings and in viewers' attention. Over the longer term, equilibrium has been the result.

If the equilibrium were upset, however, unplanned consequences would result. The attack on television violence is not simply unwarranted; it carries the threat of unfortunate dangers should it succeed. In the US, television violence is a successful site for the siphoning off of unwanted emotions. The French critic Michel Mourlet explains: "violence is a major theme in aesthetics. Violence is decompression: Arising out of a tension between the individual and the world, it explodes as the tension reaches its pitch, like an abscess burning. It has to be gone through before there can be any repose" (233).

The loss or even diminishment of television violence would suggest that surplus psychic energy would have to find other outlets. What these outlets would be is open to question, but the possibility exists that some of them might be retrogressive, involving violence in more outright and vicious forms. It is in the nation's best interest not to curtail the symbolic displays that come in the form of television violence.


The official curbing of television violence is not an idle or empty threat. It has happened recently in Canada. In 1993, the Canadian Radio- Television and Telecommunications Commission, the equivalent of the Australian Broadcasting Authority or of the American FCC, banned any "gratuitous" violence, which was defined as violence not playing "an integral role in developing the plot, character, or theme of the material as a whole" (Scully 12). Violence of any sort cannot be broadcast before 9 p.m. Totally forbidden are any programs promoting violence against women, minorities, or animals. Detailed codes regulate violence in children's shows. In addition, the Canadian invention of the V-chip is to be implemented, which would permit parents to block out programming that exceeds preset levels for violence, sexuality, or strong language (DePalma).

In the United States, the two houses of Congress have held 28 hearings since 1954 on the topic of television violence (Cooper), but none has led to the passage of regulatory legislation until the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to the Act, "studies have shown that children exposed to violent video programming at a young age have a higher tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life than children not so exposed, and that children exposed to violent video programming are prone to assume that acts of violence are acceptable behavior" (Section 551).

It then requires that newly manufactured television sets must "be equipped with a feature designed to enable viewers to block display of all programs with a common rating" (Telecommunications Act of 1996, section 551). The V-chip, the only available "feature" to meet the requirements, will therefore be imported from Canada to the United States. Utilising a rating system reluctantly and haltingly developed by the television industry, parents on behalf of their children would be able to black out offensive content. Censorship had passed down to the family level.

Although the V-chip represents the first legislated regulation of television violence in the US, that country experienced an earlier episode of violence censorship whose outcome may be telling for the fate of the chip. This occurred in the aftermath of the 1972 Report to the Surgeon General on Television and Social Behavior, which, in highly equivocal language, appeared to give some credence to the notion that violent content can activate violent behavior in some younger viewers. Pressure from influential congressmen and from the FCC and its chairman, Richard Wiley, led the broadcasting industry in 1975 to institute what came to be known as the Family Viewing Hour.

Formulated as an amendment to the Television Code of the National Association of Broadcasters, the stipulation decreed that before 9:00 p.m. "entertainment programming inappropriate for viewing by a general family audience should not be broadcast" (Cowan 113). The definition of "inappropriate programming" was left to the individual networks, but as the 1975-1976 television season drew near, it became clear to a production company in Los Angeles that the definitions would be strict. The producers of M*A*S*H (which aired at 8:30 p.m.) learned from the CBS censor assigned to them that three of their proposed programs -- dealing with venereal disease, impotence, and adultery -- would not be allowed (Cowan 125). The series Rhoda could not discuss birth control (131) and the series Phyllis would have to cancel a show on virginity (136). Television writers and producers began to rebel, and in late 1975 their Writers Guild brought a lawsuit against the FCC and the networks with regard to the creative impositions of the Family Viewing Hour. Actor Carroll O'Connor (as quoted in Cowan 179) complained, "Congress has no right whatsoever to interfere in the content of the medium", and writer Larry Gelbert voiced dismay (as quoted in Cowan 177): "situation comedies have become the theater of ideas, and those ideas have been very, very restricted". The judge who heard the case in April and May of 1976 took until November to issue his decision, but when it emerged it was polished and clear: the Family Viewing Hour was the result of "backroom bludgeoning" by the FCC and was to be rescinded. According to the judge, "the existence of threats, and the attempted securing of commitments coupled with the promise to publicize noncompliance ... constituted per se violations of the First Amendment" (Corn-Revere 201). The fate of the Family Viewing Hour may have been a sort of premoniton: The American Civil Liberties Union is currently bringing a similar case against proponents of the V-chip -- a case that may produce similar results.

Whether or not the V-chip will withstand judicial scrutiny, there are several problematic aspects to the device and any possible successors. Its usage would appear to impinge on the providers of violent content, on the viewers of it, and indeed on the fundamental legal structure of the United States.

To confront the first of these three problems, significant use of the V- chip by parents would measurably reduce the audience size for certain programmes containing symbolic violence. Little else could have greater impact on the American television system as it is currently constituted. A decrease in audience numbers quickly translates into a decrease in advertising revenues in an advertising system such as that of the United States. Advertisers may additionally shy away from a shunned programme because of its loss of popularity or because its lowered ratings have clearly stamped it as violent. The decline in revenues would make the programme less valuable in the eyes of network executives and perhaps a candidate for cancellation. The Hollywood production company would quickly take notice and begin tailoring its broadcast content to the new standards. Blander or at least different fare would be certain to result. Broadcast networks may begin losing viewers to bolder content on less fastidious cable networks and in particular to the channels that are not supported and influenced by advertising. Thus, we might anticipate a shift away from the more traditional and responsible channels towards the less so and away from advertising-supported channels to subscriber-supported channels. This shift would not transpire according to the traditional governing mechanism of television -- audience preferences. Those to whom the censored content had been destined would have played no role in its neglect. Neglect would have transpired because of the artificial intercession of controls.

The second area to be affected by the V-chip, should its implementation prove successful, is viewership, in particular younger viewers. Currently, young viewers have great license in most households to select the content they want to watch; this license would be greatly reduced by the V-chip, which can block out entire genres. Screening for certain levels of violence, the parent would eliminate most cartoons and all action- adventure shows, whether the child desires some of these or not. A New York Times reporter, interviewing a Canadian mother who had been an early tester of a V-chip prototype, heard the mother's 12-year-old son protesting in the background, "we're not getting the V-chip back!" The mother explained to the reporter, "the kids didn't like the fact that they were not in control any longer" (as quoted in DePalma C14) -- with good reason. Children are losing the right to pick the content of which they are in psychological need. The V-chip represents another weapon in the generational war -- a device that allows parents to eradicate the compensational content of which children have learned to make enjoyable use. The consequences of all this for the child and the family would be unpleasant. The chances that the V-chip will increase intergenerational friction are high. Not only will normal levels of tension and animosity be denied their outlet via television fiction but also so will the new superheated levels. It is not a pleasant prospect.

Third, the V-chip constitutes a strong challenge to traditional American First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press. Stoutly defended by post-World War II Supreme Courts, First Amendment rights can be voided "only in order to promote a compelling state interest, and then only if the government adopts the least restrictive means to further that interest" (Ballard 211). The few restrictions allowed concern such matters as obscenity, libel, national security, and the sometimes conflicting right to a fair trial. According to legal scholar Ian Ballard, there is no "compelling state interest" involved in the matter of television violence because "the social science evidence used to justify the regulation of televised violence is subject to such strong methodological criticism that the evidence is insufficient to support massive regulatory assault on the television entertainment industry" (185). Even if the goal of restricting television violence were acceptable, the V-chip is hardly "the least restrictive means" because it introduces a "chilling effect" on programme producers and broadcasters that "clearly infringes on fundamental First Amendment rights" (216). Moreover, states Ballard, "fear of a slippery slope is not unfounded" (216). If television violence can be censored, supposedly because it poses a threat to social order, then what topics might be next? It would not be long before challenging themes such a feminism or multiculturalism were deemed unfit for the same reason.

Taking all these matters into consideration, the best federal policy regarding television violence would be to have no policy -- to leave the extent of violent depictions completely up to the dictates of viewer preferences, as expertly interpreted by the television industry. In this, I am in agreement with Ian Ballard, who finds that the best approach "is for the government to do nothing at all about television violence" (218).

Author Biography

Jib Fowles