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VALLEY WEEKEND | FOR THE KIDS

Local Study at Center of TV Violence Debate

The government says the findings, released by a Studio City research firm, prove networks should rate programs.

February 15, 1996|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Studio City research firm, Mediascope Inc., is being credited with having found "the smoking gun" that Congress and the president have been looking for to clinch the case for federal control of TV violence.

The ironic and metaphoric phrase was employed last week in Washington by Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a foe of TV violence. "The smoking gun" in question is Mediascope's newly released "National Television Violence Study."

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt, is reported to have said that, based on this study, "the debate is over. There is no question now that television is too violent."

The study was funded by the National Cable Television Assn.--a further irony--and conducted at four U.S. universities. But its conclusions have the unequivocal endorsement of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Parent Teachers Assn. and the National Council of Churches.

Mediascope's findings were the top story on every network newscast Feb. 7. Interviews with Mediascope's researchers were supplemented--some might say overwhelmed--by clips of dramatized beatings and blastings, typical network evening fare.

On Feb. 8, President Clinton gave further prominence to the issue by staging a large ceremony at the Library of Congress, attended by a who's who of media moguls, where he signed federal legislation containing provisions for curbing such offerings.

Specifically, the new law includes provisions for electronic blocking of TV programs that parents deem unsuitable for their kids. The technology for doing this is still evolving. One idea is to install a computer chip in all future sets--a V-chip, as it's being called--that would automatically provide advanced warning--electronically--about certain programs.

In any case, broadcasters must now set up a system to tell parents about the degree of violence or sex in a show. Feb. 29, the White House will host a gathering of broadcasting executives to urge them to do this voluntarily--by establishing a system much like the movie business did. Otherwise Washington will do it for them.

The Mediascope inventory included a colossal amount of violence on TV. The context was also noted. For instance: Perpetrators go unpunished in more than 70% of all violent scenes.

TV executives have a big job ahead of them. Whereas the Motion Picture Assn. of America rates approximately 500 films a year, the TV producers will have to do something similar with hundreds of thousands of shows annually. Excluding the news, which isn't covered by the new law, almost half a million hours of material will have to be evaluated.

*

Not everyone thinks all this is a wonderful idea. The TV networks, predictably, have made noises about lawsuits to block enforcement of the ratings system, which they consider an expensive and unrewarding burden. Civil libertarians are worried that any government-run ratings system heralds the real-life birth of Orwell's fictional "Big Brother" watching over us. They are waiting to see how the V-chip issue plays out, but have already filed a protest suit in a related matter. They want to overturn provisions in the Feb. 8 legislation allowing federal censorship of sexual material available to computer users via the Internet.

Joel Federman, Mediascope's director of research, predicts that the V-chip could supplant the Nielsens as an audience-measuring system. The shows that survive the parental lockout might inherit bigger audiences--unless the kiddies were to give up TV altogether.

DETAILS

* FYI: Mediascope, Inc., a Studio City research firm, has just released the widely reported "National Television Violence Study." The full version is $18, the executive summary is $10. Next month it will release its 1996 report on "Media Ratings," including information on two dozen devices that allow parents to block children's viewing of objectionable material. Later this year the company will release a guidebook for parents concerned about television's effect on kids. Call (818) 508-2080.

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