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TV Industry Warned: Curb Violence or Congress Will : Entertainment: Sen. Simon tells industry leaders they must voluntarily begin to clean up shows within 60 days.

August 03, 1993|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sen. Paul Simon warned the television industry Monday that it had better act quickly and decisively to lessen on-screen violence or risk mandatory restrictions imposed by Congress.

The warning was among the bluntest yet from the Illinois Democrat, whose keynote address shook up some industry executives at an unprecedented meeting of programming producers, writers and anti-violence advocates at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

Simon has long asserted that violence on TV is directly linked to the rise of violence in society, and three years ago, he challenged the industry to voluntarily reduce violence by December. He is the author of the 1990 Television Violence Act, which gave the industry the legal footing to try and regulate itself.

On Monday, Simon urged TV's creative community to recognize the importance of self-restraint, saying: "You have in your hands a tool that is unprecedented in the history of humanity in its power."

Simon spoke at a conference sponsored by the National Council for Families & Television, intended mainly as a dialogue between the industry and those who contend that TV violence is at least partially responsible for violence generally.

No solutions, recommendations or significant new findings had been expected, but the summit was seen as Hollywood's last, best chance to show that it was taking the violence issue seriously.

"Welcome to a historic moment or a smoke screen," said ABC commentator Jeff Greenfield, who moderated the morning sessions.

Listening to a recitation of studies linking televised violence with society's ills, industry figures resisted the idea that they are responsible for what ails America, but said they were willing to do what they could to improve the picture.

"As far as CBS is concerned, this is going to have an impact on how we do business," CBS programming chief Jeff Sagansky said in an interview during the daylong event, which drew 650 people.

Sagansky noted that some TV industry panelists were skeptical of research linking violence in society to TV programs. But he said the accuracy of such studies shouldn't be the issue.

"The fact of the matter is our society has gotten more violent. No matter what you believe about the studies, we've got to be part of the solution and in no way part of the problem," Sagansky said.

Simon suggested that Congress was losing patience with such assurances.

"If we don't see in the next 60 days that we are moving in a positive direction, then I and some of my colleagues will be pushing and pushing hard" for legislation to regulate violence on television, he said.

Later, Simon said the 60-day deadline was to ensure that the warning was taken seriously. He said many in Congress were eager to pass bills on television regulation that fall short of "formal, general censorship."

Chief among Simon's recommendations was the formation of a "committee of respected citizens" that would annually assess whether "glamorized violence is increasing or decreasing on each of the broadcast and cable networks," and whether there is any attempt to keep it off TV when children may be watching.

Simon said the panel should be headed by a figure such as Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor or Newton Minow, the latter a former Federal Communication Commission chairman who famously referred to television as "a vast wasteland." The committee could develop "guideposts for all elements of the industry, as well as for advertisers and the public."

Simon said, "Either you will initiate the effort for such a monitoring office, or those outside the industry will do it. I started in this effort as a somewhat lonely voice in Congress, but I now find many of my colleagues want to go much further than is healthy for a free society."

He added: "Extremes in behavior invite extremes in response."

Simon's threat came just days after Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House telecommunications and finance subcommittee, said he would propose a bill requiring new TV sets to contain a device enabling parents to prevent children from watching violent shows.

Other recommendations by Simon included reducing or eliminating commercials promoting violent shows, showing restraint in the depiction of violence, showing the "harsh realities" of violence and encouraging children to handle conflict with "nonviolent problem solving."

Several educators and others at the conference repeated their longstanding claims that television was glamorizing violence and was at least partially responsible for violent behavior among adults and, especially, children. Shows ranging from Tom and Jerry cartoons to films such as "I Spit On Your Grave" were targeted by the experts, who were skeptical about the impact of parental advisories that the networks plan to institute before and during violent shows.

Leonard Eron, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, said violence on TV was responsible for at least 10% of violence in society. Geraldine Laybourne, president of the Nickelodeon children's network, said an informal poll of 150 young viewers revealed that 80% felt there was too much violence on television.

However, TV executives insisted that television was being used as a scapegoat, and that parents should exercise more guidance over what their children watch.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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