WASHINGTON — Violence on broadcast TV is approaching "epidemic proportions," surging 75% over the last six years while posing a threat to children that parents and government officials need to address, according to a major media watchdog study unveiled Wednesday.
The study by the Parents Television Council, titled "Dying to Entertain," said the 2005-06 season was the most violent since the group began tracking the issue in 1998. There were an average of 4.41 violent incidents each prime-time hour last season, based on the group's analysis of the first two weeks of the ratings sweeps periods.
Federal Communications Commission member Michael J. Copps, a longtime critic of TV violence, joined the group at a news conference Wednesday and warned broadcasters that the government might act if programming wasn't voluntarily toned down.
"People are concerned about this race to the bottom," he said. "They wonder if there even is a bottom. I do, too. If broadcasters do not step up to the plate and self-police, I don't think any of us should be surprised if Congress decides to step in."
Violence was defined broadly to include such scenes as car crashes and "gory autopsies." The Parents Television Council also said it counted in its total the bloody scenes and dead bodies aired on the increasing number of forensic and medical dramas, such as CBS' "CSI" franchise and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," because they showed the consequences of violence.
Overall violent incidents increased in every time slot and across all broadcast networks, according to the study. Violence jumped by 45% from 8 to 9 p.m., by 92% from 9 to 10 p.m. and by 167% from 10 to 11 p.m.
The FCC has been studying the issue for more than two years after pressure from Congress. Copps said he expected a report to be released soon. But Congress so far has shown no inclination to give the FCC authority to fine broadcasters for graphic or gratuitous violence the way it can for indecency.
A bill to grant that power failed to gain traction after it was introduced in 2005. But the bill's sponsor, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.), now has more clout with Democrats in the majority in Congress. He plans to reintroduce the legislation and hopes that it will get a hearing in the next few months, said his spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi.
Broadcasters have noted there are more violent programs on cable TV and stress the use of blocking technology, such as the V-chip. Broadcasters and cable firms are in the midst of a $300-million campaign to educate parents about the technology.
"We're surprised that cable TV programming was not included in the PTC study, since broadcast TV is far less violent than 'Sopranos-like' programming found on cable," the National Assn. of Broadcasters said in a written statement. "NAB believes the best approach is to arm responsible parents with the tools needed to screen out shows that may be inappropriate for children, as opposed to censoring some of the most popular programming on television."
Parents Television Council President Timothy Winter said the V-chip was not the solution, calling TV ratings inconsistent.
But data he cited about rating inaccuracies were from a study done in 1998 by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The Parents Television Council study did not determine whether the shows it found with violent incidents had correct ratings, said Melissa Caldwell, the group's senior director of programs.
The study builds on a similar 2003 report from the Parents Television Council. The new data come from an analysis of entertainment programs on the broadcast networks during the first two weeks of the November, February and May sweeps over the last three seasons.
During the 2005-06 season, guns were the weapon of choice, featured in 63% of violent scenes, the study found. A majority of violent scenes -- 54% -- featured either a death or an implied death. Increasingly, violence has become more central to plotlines and includes sexual elements, Winter said.
ABC showed the sharpest increase in the study, with violent incidents each prime-time hour more than tripling from an average of 0.93 in 1998 to 3.8 in the 2005-06 season. ABC officials said in a statement that they had not seen the report but were "confident that our extensive standards review of all of our programming insures acceptable content for our diverse viewing audiences."
ABC, however, had the lowest score among the four major broadcast networks last season. NBC topped the group with an average of 6.79 violent incidents per prime-time hour, followed by CBS at 5.56 and Fox at 3.84. The WB network had 3.52 violent incidents per hour and UPN had the best score at 0.86. WB was combined with UPN this year to form the CW network.
Winter urged action at all levels to prevent the negative psychological effect that studies had shown violent programming could have on children. He called on producers to cut down on the violence, network affiliates to refuse to air shows that were too graphic, advertisers to stay away from such programs and parents to be more aware of what their children were watching.
"We're not calling for a ban on anything," he said. "We're calling for some responsibility and restraint from the broadcasters."