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Violence on Network TV Declines, Study Says : Report by UCLA Group on '95-'96 Season Sees a Move 'in the Right Direction' but Finds Room for Improvement

October 16, 1996|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The latest study on depictions of violence in network television has found reduced levels virtually across the board comparing the 1995-96 television season to the previous year.

The second annual report--conducted by the UCLA Center for Communication Policy and sponsored by the four major networks--concluded the networks are "moving in the right direction," with only five of 114 prime-time series monitored raising "frequent concerns" about violent content.

Other categories--including TV movies, feature films, on-air promotion and children's programming--all exhibited improvement versus the prior year.

The center's director, Jeff Cole, did caution that there's still reason to continue the monitoring process, pointing out new problem areas (including movie ads and reality-based specials such as "When Animals Attack") as well as such ongoing issues as the broadcast of excessively violent feature films.

"By no means does [the report] say the problem is over," Cole said.

Network programmers can nevertheless point to the findings--recognizing a relative lack of violence on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox compared to cable and syndicated programs--as evidence they have responded to issues voiced by politicians and pressure groups about violence on broadcast television.

"We are gratified that the UCLA study has recognized real progress at CBS during the last year," said CBS President Peter Lund, whose comment was echoed by the other networks.

UCLA's methodology has proven more acceptable to the industry than a survey commissioned in early 1994 by the cable networks. Specifically, the monitoring emphasizes context and not merely counting acts of violence or aggression, as has been the case in many past academic works, some of which have drawn ridicule from programmers for failing to differentiate between bloody action movies and Roadrunner cartoons.

The 220-page report, for example, lauded programs such as "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" for responsibly portraying consequences of violence and mitigating the violent acts shown.

In addition, a pair of shows flagged for violence two seasons ago, ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and Fox's "The X-Files," moved off that list. Despite violent content in the latter, Cole indicated, the show seldom dwelt on violent images and included no more than were necessary to advance its story.

"The key to all of this is context," Cole said, adding that he hoped context would be taken account in a proposed TV ratings system--citing the need for distinctions between movies such as "Schindler's List" and "The Terminator."

President Clinton, who has made the introduction of a V-chip allowing parents to block out certain TV programs a campaign issue, was briefed on the report Tuesday. Cole offered to brief Republican challenger Bob Dole as well.

"The president has pushed this issue hard from the bully pulpit," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "I think we deserve some credit." McCurry also credited Dole, who has delivered two speeches in Hollywood about its role in shaping culture, for his role.

Compared to last year's findings fewer series (from nine down to five) caused serious concerns about violence, the percentage of TV movies mentioned dropped from 14% to 10%, and network on-air promotion also improved.

Though theatrical films are "still where most of the violence remains," Cole said, even those dropped from 42% prompting concern to 29% last season. The first report suggested certain movies, even edited, are unsuitable for broadcast.

Of the five prime-time shows raising frequent concerns--CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Nash Bridges," and Fox's "New York Undercover," "Kindred: The Embraced" and "Space: Above and Beyond"--the last two have been canceled.

Similarly, half of the eight shows prompting "occasional concerns" are gone: "American Gothic," "seaQuest 2032," "Charlie Grace" and "Due South." The others are "Melrose Place," "JAG," "The Simpsons" (specifically for the show-within-a-show "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoons) and "America's Funniest Home Videos."

The networks initially agreed to the study in an effort to avoid being saddled with a TV ratings system, which they fear will have negative financial consequences by scaring off advertisers. Though the networks lost that battle, Cole urged the monitoring process be continued, either through UCLA or another source.

Cole said he will meet with network officials in December to go over findings as well as flag programs raising issues based on preliminary monitoring results for the current season. He also invited the new WB and UPN Networks to join in the study, especially since the latter was found to have four violent programs last season, although three of those weren't renewed.

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