238. "Lock Up Your TV Set" National Review, (October 18, 1993), pp. 50-54.


The gadget is small: it can easily be incorporated into your next TV set. (Or, if you insist, attached to your old one.) By punching in a few numbers, you can ensure that your child will never see another violent show on your home TV set. The issue at hand, however, is far from small. Nothing less is at stake than the question of whether a community may edit its culture, or whether it must be subject to limitless gore and filth so as not to curb anyone’s right to express himself and make money.

Until recently there was less that a broad consensus that television violence is a problem in need of treatment. On the contrary, while conservatives railed against pornography (sometimes in an uneasy alliance with feminists), liberals insisted that we have no business regulating show business. While these liberals did bemoan the spread of violence in the culture, they had neither the ideas nor the stomach to do anything about it.

Moreover, the social sciences, which act as a kind of semi-independent source of facts and observations, offered no further illumination. I hate to admit it, but over a lifetime of teaching sociology, I too tended to follow the dictates of the social sciences. Violence in the media was harmless, went the textbook mantra; there was no evidence of any “correlation” between exposure to violence (or, for that matter, hard-core pron) and anti-social behavior. On the contrary, social scientists used to opine, expressing violent urges when watching, say, Fatal Attraction, The Last Action Hero, or Lethal Weapon may vent these feelings in a harmless manner and obviate the need to act them out.

True, there were some incidents that contradicted the social sciences. Friday the 13th, a slasher movie, quickly found a live imitator. A movie about violence in the ghetto, Colors, led viewers to riot in several cities. A group of black teenagers, incensed over the violence depicted in Mississippi Burning, beat a white 14-year-old into unconsciousness.

Some media moguls, such as Disney’s Michael Eisner, still suggest that movies like Terminator release more aggression than they build up. However, by now the social sciences have caught up. There is mounting evidence that violence in the media is one factor that breeds real violence in the body of society.

A rural Canadian town began receiving TV signals for the first time in 1973, and the rate of violent behavior among young children increased 160 per cent in the following two years. University of British Columbia researchers found that the rate of aggression rose among both boys and girls and was widespread. Two similar towns nearby had had TV for some time and experienced no such increase between 1973 and 1975.

A University of Illinois at Chicago study found that the amount of television a child watches at age eight predicts the severity of violent acts later committed as an adult. Even after controlling for factors such as intelligence, socioeconomic status, and baseline aggressiveness, the study found that individuals who watched more televison as children were more likely to become abusive adults. This statistic becomes particularly alarming when one considers that about half of children six and older have their own TV set in their bedroom.

A study commissioned by CBS in 1978 found that children who had watched an above-average amount of violence on television before adolescence were, as teenagers, committing acts such as assault, rape, major vandalism, and abuse of animals at a rate 49 per cent higher than those who had experienced little TV violence.

A Harvard psychologist, Ronald G. Slaby, pointed out that the impact goes beyond increasing aggression. Children also experience a victim effect (increased fearfulness) and a bystander effect (increased callousness and desensitization to violence).

After the anti-Vietnam War movie The Deer Hunter was first shown on national television, with the Russian-roulette scene left intact, some 29 copycat incidents were reported, 26 of which were fatal.

As the body of evidence accumulated and public concern mounted, Congress moved to conduct hearings on the subject. Predictably, media moguls protested that TV should not be blamed for having caused all that violence. Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, argued that children are affected by poverty, broken homes, and communities awash with drugs and handguns,

Fair enough. However, even television producers and broadcasters had a hard time denying that media violence is one of the key ingredients in the complex mix of factors that produce anti-social conduct.

Freedom to Self-Destruct

If it was not easy to reach a consensus that there is a problem, it is even more challenging to find the antidote. In part the issue is philosophical. There is a strong sense, at least in the sizable parts of the community influenced by libertarians, that as people must live with the consequences of their acts, they should be free to choose their own poison if they so desire. Thus, if they wish to numb their minds by watching re-runs of HeeHaw, it is their minds that are deactivated. If they are too busy watching boxing matches on HBO to taste the joys of reading a fine novel, it is their lives that are diminished. This argument has less validity when it comes to footage that fosters violent predispositions, the consequences of which others must bear. However, very few see the nexus between watching violent television and acting out as sufficiently binding to justify anything even remotely resembling censorship. (After all, the correlation between possessing handguns and violence is much stronger, and guns are not banned.)

The philosophical context changes fundamentally, though, when we turn to minors. Their hearts and minds and willpower are still inchoate. It is an elementary fact that infants are born without any moral or social values. Unless they are provided with the values that the community cherishes, they will grow up to be morally defective adults, if not full-blown psychopaths. After they gain values and mature, youngsters may change their course, even rebel against the community consensus. First, however, they must learn what a consensus is. Learning that violence is not the way to dispose of one’s problems is an integral part of the lessons that any civil society must pass on from generation to generation.

Remembering that the community agents in charge of the moral initiation of the young are clearly their parents brings us to the crux of the matter: how to enable them to discharge this duty when it comes to watching television. I stress “enable” because it will not do to preach to parents if the tools they require are not available. Parents cannot shape what values television instills in their children if information about what a TV program contains is not available, or if they have no effective means to enforce their decisions. As a father of five wonderful but not completely perfect sons, let me tell you that standing next to the TV set 24 hours a day is not quite the way to go.

V-Rated Movies?

It is rather a special American tradition, unlike the Scandinavian one, that we assist parents in guiding their children when it comes to mild and full-blown porn, but not when it comes to violence. Thus there are R and X ratings for movies, but so far no V ratings. The only things that we cover in brown paper wrappers and sell behind drawn shades are depictions of explicit sex - not decapitation, evisceration, or murder.

In 1993, a few members of Congress decided to prod producers and broadcasters to do to media violence a bit of what they have done to porn. The congressmen knew that they could not pass laws that would survive the media lobby. However, they hoped that hearings of the subject would encourage the media industry, ever publicity conscious, into action. They overestimated what mere prodding can accomplish.

The hearings focused on two bills that had no more chance of being enacted than late-night TV has of being turned over to the University without Walls. One bill, introduced by Representative Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), proposed that TV sets be equipped with locks. The other bill, proposed by Senator Byron L. Dorgan (D., N.D.), would have the Federal Communications Commission keep a “violence report card” listing the number of violent acts on television each quarter - which seems to me to introduce a government agency where it is best left out.

The media, in any case, can be a mulish beast. Only Sega of America, a Japanese-based manufacturer of video games, voluntarily offered to rank its products. The rest of the media moguls responded by agreeing to introduce a generic warning - “Due to some violent content, parental discretion advised” - for a trial period of two years. Translation: until the publicity dies down.

For such a warning to be effective, moreover, parents must be present when the program starts. When the parents are absent, they are left with no tool to control their children’s TV viewing. Such ratings alone, then, are in reality no more practical than standing guard around the clock. Indeed, warnings could have the opposite of the intended effect: according to Terry Rakolta, founder of Americans for Responsible Television, the warnings may actually attract children to forbidden footage.

Hence the need for a TV lock - actually a chip that reads signals sent over the airwaves. The technology is similar to that now used to transmit closed-caption information to deaf viewers: an unused portion of TV signals can be adapted to tell the chip what is forthcoming. Some critics argue that technically deficient parents will not be able to use a TV lock any more than they are able to set their VCR, and may well have to resort to having their children program the locks! However, this is hardly a serious obstacle. The chips can be made to be as user-friendly as the new VCR-plus. The parent simply punches a number into the lock, setting it as a given violence rating, then protects it from tampering through a simple childproof code, and the chip does the rest.

Other argue that it is difficult to define what constitutes violence; that some shows with a higher body count are less violent than those that feature close-ups of gore - and from there the considerations multiply. Howard Stringer, president of CBS broadcasting group, points to Julius Caesar as a film that would fall victim to a V rating, and fears that a violence warning would end the presentation of all drama on TV. Some psychologists warn that Jurassic Park may be too “intense” for children: after all, the dinosaurs eat people. A Washington Post writer was worried about the fate of Dracula. Yet the networks already have in-house reviewers who disallow certain scenes: these reviewers could serve on a new industry-wide rating committee.

The Devil Knows Where

Then there is the unpredictable slippery-slope argument. Lucie Salhany, chairman of Fox Broadcasting, warns that if we have a V chip, all sorts of censorship will follow: “Will we have a sex chip? And what about the news chip?” If you accept this notion, then we can never change the status quo, however perverted, out of fear that the suggested changes may lead us the Devil knows where. However, the fears of censorship are highly exaggerated. Containing our torrential floods of TV violence with a few optional devices is no more likely to stem our freedom of expression than sandbags can dam the Mississippi.

Last but not least, media representatives maintain that they only show what the public wants to see. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, puts it like this: “There is one thing movie people worship. It is not ideology, it is not Democratic it is not Republican. Hollywood worships audiences.” If nobody wanted to watch violent movies and tapes, they would self-destruct.

Yet the truth is that the media respond not only to numbers on the bottom line but also to changes in community values - when these are in line with the liberal proclivities of major segments of the media. Thus if you watch a random set of programs you will find black neurosurgeons, judges, and police chiefs in a much higher proportion than their actual presence in the population. In other words, these representations are not demographically but politically correct. When President Reagan complained about the glorification of drug use in the movies, the industry first denied this was the case - then mended its ways. Particularly revealing was a moot court organized by Fred Friendly in which several producers and broadcasters participated. All those consulted agreed that they would not produce or show a movie expressing the views of the KKK, whatever the demand. In short, when it suits the media industry, it is quite capable of editing itself.

All that we require now is to ensure that violence is added to the media’s checklist of what must be toned down. The media may well find that there are more creative ways of depicting conflict than resorting to the mass butchery of stunt people. However, there is another consideration at work. The media may well refuse to budge on the issue of TV locks for fear that parents will set them to significantly curtail the amount of TV exposure of all kinds rather than just exposure to violence.

Here the public had best turn its message to the producers not of TV tapes, but of TV sets: give us the locks as an option at a reasonable cost. (While they currently cost $96 or more, if mass-produced they may sell for as little as $5 each.) Given a V-rating system and a TV lock, parents can do the rest.

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