NEW YORK – Violence, gore and gunplay were staples on prime-time TV even in the most sensitive period directly after the Newtown school shooting.
A study of 392 prime-time scripted programs on broadcast networks shown during the month after Vice President Joe Biden’s January meeting with entertainment industry executives on the topic revealed that 193 had some incident of violence, according to the Parents Television Council. Some are cartoonish – quite literally, with Homer strangling Bart for mouthing off on “The Simpsons” – but there is plenty of gunplay, stabbings and beat-downs.
Here’s a sample of the incidents captured by the PTC between Jan. 11 and Feb. 11:
• A woman on Fox’s “The Following” jams an ice pick into her eye.
• A man threatens hospital workers on NBC’s “Chicago Fire” with a gun before he’s disabled with a Taser.
Real life has continued to intrude on TV entertainment as the months go by. NBC pulled an episode of its serial killer drama “Hannibal” after the Boston Marathon bombing, as did ABC with a “Castle” episode where a character stepped on a pressure-sensitive bomb. Some Newtown parents objected to a recent “Glee” episode that depicted a school shooting.
“I think it is only going to get worse,” said Dr. Victor Strasburger, pediatrics professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, who has written frequently on the topic of violence in the media. He said media executives are “not willing to own up to their public health responsibilities.”
TV executives are reluctant to talk about violent content, and when pressed question any link between what they air on TV and aggressive behavior in real life. Schedules get shifted around when tragic events are in the news, but there’s no indication they have changed the types of programs being made.
Policy debates have largely overlooked the issue, focusing instead on background checks for gun owners or bans on assault weapons.
In the past, networks have disputed some of the PTC methodology. Some comedic moments are counted as violent episodes in PTC’s study when they could be questioned, like a play swordfight on “The Cleveland Show.” The PTC doesn’t detail the one violent incident it counted on Betty White’s “Off Their Rockers,” but it’s hard to imagine comparing it to the serial killer on “The Following.”
“I’ve had a hard time finding these studies to be very useful to parents or anyone who is looking at this objectively,” said Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes government involvement in television programming.
Still, it’s a sobering body count.
The parents’ group said it found not only an increase in gore from other studies it has conducted over 18 years but a greater specificity and darkness to the violence.
“There has been no accountability, in my opinion, in terms of the degree and amount of violence,” said Tim Winter, the parents’ group president.
Broadcast networks find themselves squeezed by cable networks that are able to be more explicit in what they show; Dyke, in fact, said it is unfair for a group like the PTC to study broadcast violence and not include what’s on cable. There’s also a feeling that they’re giving viewers what they want. The explosive popularity of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” among young viewers has clearly made broadcasters take notice.
Talking about the gore involved in “The Following” shortly before it went on the air this winter, Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly said nightmarish scenarios are part of the entertainment menu that a broadcast network needs to provide to its viewers. When a network does this, it must be able to compete with smaller network on an intensity level, he said.
Parents also have the ability to block out programming that they do not want to keep it from their children, the networks’ defenders said.
A CBS representative declined comment on the PTC study, while ABC, NBC and Fox did not respond to a request for comment.
“Networks are out to make money and will do whatever it takes to make money,” Strasburger said. “When the public health of children comes into conflict with big money, big money always wins.”
May represents a turning point for networks, which announce their fall schedules to advertisers in a couple of weeks. The four biggest networks ordered pilots for a total of 44 prospective dramas that they are considering airing sometime in the next season.
Some of them suggest the same issues will persist. Two of ABC’s pilots are “Killer Women” and “Murder in Manhattan.” Fox is considering series about a family of assassins working for the U.S. government, about a gang member infiltrating a police force and about a person systematically murdering people in the federal witness protection program.
CBS, which already has a lineup heavy on police procedurals, has ordered “Anatomy of Violence,” about a psychologist with expertise on sociopaths. NBC’s “The Blacklist” is about the world’s most wanted criminal and “Hatfields & McCoys” updates the legendary family feud in a modern setting.