"It's phenomenology," Kevin O'Malley said. Meaning? "What you see is what you get."
The subject was the frightening vision of TV violence in a recent photo exhibit of O'Malley's at the EZTV Video Center in West Hollywood. The small gallery had asked the 34-year-old O'Malley for a TV-related exhibit.
"So I took what I thought was the essence of TV," O'Malley said, "which is violence."
O'Malley, who teaches photography at the Westlake School, asked 15 of his students to tape TV from 5:30 p.m. to midnight on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14--those 6 1/2 hours being only a little less than average daily viewing for American homes.
The students were 16-18 years of age. Each one (fortunately for O'Malley, most Westlake students are from upscale homes with at least one VCR) was assigned to tape a different channel. Some snafus eliminated Select TV and KCOP Channel 13 from the mix, but O'Malley still had plenty to work with, including cartoons, movies, news programs and sports. He collected the tapes and played them on his old set at home, stopping the picture when he wanted to photograph something.
O'Malley photographed only "violent" scenes that he felt didn't represent everyday life. "Every time someone pulled a gun or tried to stab someone. Or like on 'Falcon Crest,' when they electrocuted a guy behind a door by taking a wire from a wall socket and throwing water on the rug."
Three months later he had finished his project, and 1,249 4x5-inch photos and 13 larger photos were mounted on a wall at the gallery, categorized by channel.
There's nothing scientific about any of this. But the most "violent" channels, at least for that Friday, according to O'Malley, were KHJ-TV Channel 9 and cable's HBO with 140 photos each, followed by KCBS Channel 2 with 128; KTLA Channel 5 with 126; KNBC Channel 4 with 119; USA cable with 116; cable's Showtime/The Movie Channel with 97; cable's WTBS with 90; KABC-TV Channel 7 with 77; KTTV Channel 11 with 73; public TV station KDOC in Orange County with 69; public TV station KCET Channel 28 with 54, and cable's Z Channel with 20.
The display was overwhelming. Viewed together, the photographs had an awesome power, an eerie resonance giving credence to what some TV researchers define as "the mean-world syndrome":
TV depicts life as more threatening than it is, giving us such a fright that we are increasingly terrified of opening our front door lest we encounter the "mean world" lurking outside.
O'Malley doesn't pretend to know the impact of TV violence. But he knows that he doesn't like it and doesn't want his young daughter to watch it. He and his family like to watch NBC's "Cheers."
"I didn't cheat, honest," O'Malley said about his pictures. "If anything, I erred on the conservative side." What's more, he added, the untaped Channel 13 aired a Charles Manson movie that night "that would have filled the whole room" with violent pictures.
Still, he juiced the effect by sometimes having multiple pictures of the same subject. Some of the photos also only imply violence or potential violence. And some--like one showing movie critic Gary Franklin grimacing over a violent movie--reflect aggression, not violence.
Isn't that unfair? "Essentially, TV leaves itself open for a sucker punch," O'Malley argued. "I'm surprised no one has done this before. Maybe they have done it before. They should have done it before."
O'Malley said that program directors at the channels on display were mailed invitations to the exhibit. Those invitations also included his plea that they reevaluate their program policies regarding violence.
"To the best of my knowledge, no one showed up," he said. "And it's the kind of place where people in the industry go all the time."
So what's the point? "Righteous indignation," O'Malley said. "The best we have to offer is this?"