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Blurring the Lines on TV's Graphic Violence

Critics decry the many disturbing images on the air, but which airwaves do they mean? Broadcast networks have a rap they might not deserve.

October 29, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

Rolling Stone once ran ads promoting the magazine's value to advertisers using the slogan "Perception. Reality." "Perception," in terms of who reads Rolling Stone, was a picture of a drugged-out hippie. "Reality" was presented as a well-groomed yuppie with all of that disposable income media buyers love.

Separating perception and reality in prime-time television is an equally daunting task, especially when the hot-button issue of sex and violence arises. And the challenge becomes even murkier in attempts to delineate the excesses of broadcasters, the only channels coming into the home that are licensed by the government.

Granted, charting broadcasting's transgressions may be a moot point, since the distinction between broadcasters and other channels is increasingly lost on modern TV viewers--especially, according to research, those in younger age brackets. Kids don't care whether it's on Channel 2 or 62; they only know they want to watch Nickelodeon, in much the same way some men locate ESPN as soon as they pick up a remote control.

Efforts to characterize TV content also have a way of getting mucked up when politicians get involved. In a famous instance, former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon began crusading against television violence in the 1980s--inspired in part, he said, by seeing "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" on a hotel TV in 1985. As it turns out, the film's distributor said it had not been shown on broadcast television at that time, meaning Simon was likely seeing a channel carrying uncut movies piped into his room.

Still, the assumption always has been that viewers must actively invite cable and satellite-delivered channels into their homes--paying a fee for the privilege--while broadcast television is free to anyone with an antenna.

Broadcasters also occupy a unique place in society, given that they deliver programming over public airwaves. In exchange for those lucrative broadcast licenses granted by the federal government, the argument has gone since the 1930s, broadcasters owe a debt to society--defined, at various times, as carrying public-affairs programming, providing educational fare for children, or observing standards of decorum to avoid offending the audience and exposing kids to questionable programs, particularly during hours when they are more likely to be watching.

Market forces do play a role in dictating what content is deemed acceptable. Advertising remains the fuel that makes these machines go, and sponsors screen programs and shun those they fear will present their products in a less-than-favorable light.

Yet despite such limitations, there remains a sense in some quarters that television--including broadcast channels--is a cultural cesspool, oozing sex, violence and profanity. One watchdog group, the Parents Television Council, reported in regard to language that words previously considered worthy of notice--including "butt," "hell" and "damn"--have become so common in prime time they were dropped from its list of objectionable phrases.

While graphic sexual acts are rare, frank talk about sex, jokes and innuendo are virtually unavoidable on any orbit through the broadcast universe, with the possible exception of public television. As one recent example, consider 8 p.m. Fridays on ABC, a slot once occupied by such kid-oriented fare as "Full House" and "Family Matters." This year, ABC has switched to a more adult direction, and its new Friday leadoff show, "Two Guys and a Girl," opened the season with two characters awakening from a one-night stand.

Though sexuality has long been a complaint on the part of conservatives, the many liberals who have joined in the fray have principally focused on violence, fueled by events such as the shootings at Columbine High School. The hunt for violence, however, is a somewhat more complicated proposition, one in which the perception and reality columns don't always appear in alignment.

So, narrowing the examination to violence on broadcast television, where would one find the sort of content that might provoke chagrin on the part of an average parent, whatever that is? Scanning the current schedules, the number of prime-time programs apt to cause alarm are generally few and far between.

Most of the series in question fall under the label of "action," a pithy euphemism for violence. CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger" continues to be the flag bearer for this genre, getting by with as much dialogue is necessary to convey Chuck Norris from one righteous beating to the next. A more infrequent culprit would be the military drama "JAG," which only periodically lets loose with any real firepower.

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