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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Execs Vow Change While Programming Violence : Television: Network moguls' vows to dramatically reduce violence in prime time were a bit like Hannibal Lecter endorsing vegetarianism.

May 24, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's rare to see top executives of powerful television networks squirm like naughty schoolboys brought before the headmaster. Or like accused heretics answering to the Grand Inquisitor.

The occasion Friday was C-SPAN's telecast of a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on television violence, much of which was consumed by testimony from executives of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and several cable networks. The hearing was chaired by Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), author of 1990 legislation granting the industry an antitrust exemption until this December to unite in drafting voluntary guidelines on TV violence. An industrywide conference on the topic is scheduled for Aug. 2 in Los Angeles.

Even in a Senate chamber accustomed to obfuscation, Friday's gathering was notable for its apparent double talk. Given their murderous pedigrees--particularly during this month's ratings sweeps--the ABC, CBS and NBC moguls' vows to dramatically reduce depictions of violence in prime time were a bit like "Silence of the Lambs" gourmand Hannibal Lecter endorsing vegetarianism.

At issue here was the impact of TV violence on kids. And these guys wanted the senators to know that as doting, loving, caring parents themselves--they did everything but bring out their family albums--they were sensitive to the issue.

Especially with the threat of federal intervention looming ominously.

Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, said he has a 5-month-old son. Warren Littlefield, president of NBC entertainment, said he has two children, ages 8 and 11. George Vradenburg, executive vice president of Fox Inc., said he too is a dad. And in a stirring display of patriotism to boot, Vradenburg wore a necktie with an American flag pattern.

Instead of parenthood and patriotism, Thomas S. Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., displayed his sense of humor. "I am proud of the effort we at Capital Cities/ABC have made to regulate the depiction of violence on our network," said Murphy, whose network's May movie/miniseries list included "Murder in the Heartland," Stephen King's "The Tommyknockers," "Wild Palms" and "Deadly Relations," good for a combined couple of dozen bodies.

"We are guests in the living rooms of America, so our personal values should be the most useful litmus test of taste and the surest guide to . . . sensitivity," said Stringer ("When Love Kills: The Seduction of John Hearn" and "Love, Honor and Obey: The Last Mafia Murder").

NBC "has gotten the message," declared Littlefield ("Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story," "Visions of Murder," "In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco" and "Terror in the Towers").

Because Fox's forte is raunch more than violent movies, Vradenburg was relatively unapologetic. However, the other network executives urged the senators to judge them not by the guns of May but by their new fall schedules. Did that mean, Simon asked these men of peace, that there would be no "repeat of May in the future"?

Stringer's response was withering, a rambling 634-word filibuster in which he cited "Richard III" and "Euripides," quoted "King Lear" ("Out, vile jelly!") and paraphrased Lord Byron ("All tragedy ends in death") and noted the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia ("The dullest television in the world was on Yugoslav television the last 10 years, and it didn't get in the way of everybody killing each other"). He droned on so long that the leaden-lidded Murphy appeared ready to topple off of his chair.

Afterward, Simon tenuously sought to interpret Stringer's numbing monologue. "Probably (you're) gonna do better next May?"

Stringer: "No, definitely we're gonna do better next May." Ditto, said the other network guys. "Definitely do better," Simon repeated. "All right, I like that answer better." Simon seemed unconcerned that he had received no such assurance for November and February ratings sweeps.

In any event, doing better has to be voluntary, all of the TV executives insisted. No government interference. No censorship. Absolutely no censorship.

They promised they'd be good from now on--honest! Just like Littlefield's NBC, they had gotten the message to a man. Who needed all this violence, anyway? It was old, musty, passe, un-American, they seemed to agree. What was once beyond their comprehension was now skywritten across the heavens. Nonviolence--that was now the Holy Grail.

"The most highly rated movie of last year was 'Sarah, Plain and Tall,' which was a quite rural drama about the Midwest," said the reformed Stringer, adding later: "I would settle for 15 'Sarah, Plain and Talls.' "

NBC's highest-rated movie this month was a gentle theatrical film, "Fried Green Tomatoes," the new and improved Littlefield said. Nonviolent programs were NBC's "greatest success stories" in May, he added.

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