How ancient is the concern over violence on television and its effects on society? Crack open a cobwebbed copy of Lyndon Johnson's National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence from 1969, where it reads, "Public concern for violence in entertainment television programming has been with us since at least 1954." In other words, go back to the days when people were still using their first TV sets.
You'd also discover reading this report that even back then, the TV industry was trying to duck and weave out of any public concerns. They claimed there was no research into TV violence, claimed they would do some, and then dragged their feet for ten years. They claimed it was not a researchable problem, then under pressure, pledged to spend money on research. They also solemnly pledged to Congress they would reduce TV violence.
The report said network representatives promised a reduction in televised violence to the Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency in 1954, in 1961, and in 1963. But the Senate staff found the quantity of violent programs increased as much as 300% between 1954 and 1961.
Sound familiar? For anyone interested in this issue, it should. We've gone around the merry-go-round on this countless times, so many times that today, the amount of research on the negative effects of TV violence could block an interstate highway. And yet the barons of shock-and-awe TV continue to pile ever more trauma and gore.
The latest landmark (or landfill) in the TV world is the arrival of HBO's pay-cable mob drama The Sopranos on the basic-cable channel A&E, where now virtually anyone with cable can watch. How carefully is this show with mature-themed sex, violence, and profanity vetted for general audiences? TV critics wailed that any snip is messing with the "artistic integrity," but the Hollywood Reporter reassured fans that "a few judicious snips to a series can be made without snuffing its profane soul."
The early word is that the makers of The Sopranos prepared their Mafia-milking cash cow for general audiences by double-shooting scenes with clothed strippers and lots of uses of the word "freaking." Still, the eye-opening violence is pretty much left untouched. "Have no fear, mayhem fans," cooed the TV critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune, since A&E is "letting them act like gangsters and talk like dorks."
The "quality" controllers at A&E have told critics that extraordinarily grisly sequences, such as someone's brains being splattered all over a wall, have been shortened by a second or two. Who says these networks don't have standards.
The arrival of The Sopranos marks the ongoing trend, wherein ultraviolent, ultra-sexual programming made for pay-cable channels oozes into basic-cable syndication. It began with Sex and the City reruns on TBS, and now includes Six Feet Under on Bravo. And with basic cable now sliding into the muck, it is dragging over-the-air broadcast TV with it. Reruns of the vile bad-cop drama The Shield have gravitated to the new CW network. All of television is sliding into the violence swamp.
Broadcast TV has grown more violent in recent years, thanks in part to the gore in CSI and its different versions and imitations. A new study by the Parents Television Council finds that the 2005-2006 TV season was the most violent in recent history. In fact, there has been a 75% increase in prime-time TV violence since the 1998 season. Even TV critics have noticed, calling the new trend "horrific on purpose," and finding the body count "rivals that of a war zone."
Violence has increased in every hour of prime time, and it's especially graphic in the last hour. Imagine children watching the episode of NBC's Law & Order: SVU where the detectives raid the house of a serial pedophile and find a series of dead children lying in pools of blood. Or try the episode of NBC's Crossing Jordan where one of the doctors is held at gunpoint to accomplish the mission of removing a 12-year-old's testicles.
Some scenes just seem designed for maximum creepiness. One episode of the forensic drama Bones on Fox had the heroine finding a mummified corpse. To get the fingerprints, she cut a hand off, soaked it in water, and peeled the skin off like a glove and put it on her hand.
This isn't what they worried about in 1954. I suspect there wasn't a leader in this field who predicted that television would ever feature something as noxious as what is to be found on television sets today.
But what they did predict was the slippery slope of cultural decay, and that's precisely what's happening before our eyes. Even worse, the slide hasn't been halted, even slowed. It is accelerating. Where are we headed? It's a frightening thought.