What You Need to Know About TV Violence

– by Walt Mueller
1998, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

A few years ago, television viewers in parts of Pennsylvania were watching the live broadcast of a press conference at which a state official was making an announcement regarding some financial matters. To the horror of everyone watching, he pulled a loaded pistol from his jacket, made a few frantic remarks, inserted the gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. The TV audience had witnessed an actual suicide. Several stations across the state were chastised for their decision to run the uncut tape of the incident on newscasts later that day.

On an evening in early 1992, viewers watching the NBC network news were treated to another horrific piece of videotape. The tape showed a fatal meeting at a Florida cemetery where the burial of a teenage suicide victim had just concluded. The dead girl’s father, divorced from her mother, arrived at the cemetery and angrily blamed his ex-wife for their daughter’s death. The video showed the man pulling a gun and murdering the woman. The TV audience had witnessed an actual murder. The similar airing and re-airing of actual video violence served to make Rodney King and Reginald Denny household names.

Sadly, these televised accounts that were unusual pushing the envelope; television fare a few years ago, have become so frequent they fail to draw the criticism they once generated. Televised violence, both staged and real, has become a part of everyday life. By the time they finish elementary school, the average child will have watched 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 televised acts of violence. By the time that child reaches the age of 18, those numbers will have doubled.

Why is the American media showing more and more acts of staged and real-life violence? The answer is simple. The name of the game in television is to build an audience, and violence is an effective means to gain viewers. One Fox Network executive admitted that the highest rated segments of its Reporters series were the ones that featured lots of blood.

In an effort to boost ratings and compete for greater audience share, network and cable broadcast outlets have provided viewers with a steady and graphic dose of televised violence. In February of 1992, the NBC series I Witness Video came on the air and showed a replay of murders that had been taped by amateur camera operators. TV Guide reported, “For the first time in history, a major network started programming death as entertainment.” Tabloid TV and reality shows pepper promotional spots featuring the violent and sensational content of upcoming episodes throughout the broadcast day. Talk shows regularly cover topics ranging from sexual violence to murderous love triangles. On-stage fisticuffs have become a daily occurrence on Jerry Springer’s show, taking it to the top of the talk-show ratings. When he was still on the air, Phil Donahue said that he would go so far as to broadcast an execution.

TV’s violent trend has even served to make real-life criminals rich. One example was the well-publicized attempted-murder case of seventeen-year-old Amy Fisher, the “Long Island Lolita.”Hollywood agents and TV producers scrambled to get the rights to her story. Tabloid-TV show Hard Copy reportedly offered $200,000 for those rights. Fisher’s attorney offered exclusive rights to her story to anyone who would post her two-million-dollar bail. Several networks produced made-for-TV movies about the case. This type of movie is not unusual. Forty percent of the prime-time movies produced by the networks are “true” stories based on criminal acts and cases. The Fisher incident generated at least ten million dollars in revenue from books, TV movies, and tabloid shows. Other violent crimes that have paid in similar ways include the Menendez murders (tabloid TV, three books, two TV movies), the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (tabloid TV, six books, and three movies), Lorena Bobbit slicing off her husband’s penis (tabloid TV, movies, and John Bobbit’s line of twenty-dollar Love Hurts T-shirts), and the television feeding frenzy surrounding the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

One of the most violent television shows of the 90’s happens to be targeted at and watched by teenagers. MTV’s animated show Beavis and Butt-Head draws three times the normal MTV viewing audience and even though no new episodes are currently being produced, its reruns continue to be extremely popular among kids. A pre-show warning tells viewers that the characters are not real and that they are “dumb, crude, thoughtless, ugly, sexist, and self-destructive. But for some reason, the little wiener-heads make us laugh.” These characters’ violent and abusive adventures include cutting the head off a praying mantis with a chain saw, using frogs for batting practice, and setting fire to anything and everything they can get their hands on.

Comedy Central’s popular South Park is recognized as the heir apparent to Beavis and Butthead, inheriting the minds and hearts of our children and teens. The crudely animated show follows the adventures of four third-graders in the small town of South Park, Colorado and has been described as a whacked-out version of the Peanuts comic strip. One of the show’s hallmarks is it’s violent nature. In each episode, a young character named Kenny dies. His deaths are usually violent. Kenny’s been run over by a police car, shot, impaled through the head on a flagpole, ripped apart on the football field, and thrown into a microwave. These are only a few examples of a show that couches violence in humor. It’s interesting to note that the show grew out of an animated short by the show’s creators titled The Spirit of Christmas. In the cartoon, Jesus and Santa Claus stage a violent hand-to-hand Kung-fu fight over Christmas bragging rights.

Both formal and informal studies show that TV violence has increased over the years. Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island, conducted his own survey of prime-time programming, going back over thirty years. He found that in 1955, there were no violent crime shows on the air during prime-time viewing hours. In 1965, there were six hours of violent programs, including one in the 8 P.M. (EST) slot (a time when children and teens are usually watching). In 1975 there were twenty-one hours of violent shows with two broadcast at 8 P.M.  And in 1985, violent programming had increased to twenty-seven hours with nine such shows at 8 P.M.

Other studies measure the exact amounts, types, and distribution of television violence. Children’s television programming is especially violent. Researchers conducting UCLA’s Television Violence Monitoring Project conclude that A people rarely die on Saturday morning TV, but they do fight – a lot. The shows send the message that fighting, if not fun, is at least the norm.Forty-six percent of all TV violence takes place in children’s cartoons. These shows portray violence in a humorous fashion 67% of the time. Two-thirds of all children’s programming contains violence. When all is said and done, our children are exposed to an average of 5 violent acts per hour during prime time and 26 violent acts per hour during Saturday morning children’s programs.

The most extensive study on television violence is the National Television Violence Study. Here is a summary of the recent study’s key findings:

<          Most television violence goes unpunished. In fact, perpetrators go unpunished in 73% of all violent scenes.

<          47% of all violent interactions show no harm to victims.

<          58% of all violent interactions show no pain.

<          Only 16% of all violent interactions portray the long-term negative effects of violence (psychological, financial, or emotional harm).

<          25% of all violent interactions involve handguns.

<          Only 4% of all violent programs emphasize an anti-violence theme.

<          57% of all programming is violent.

It probably comes as no surprise that parents who are diligent about protecting their kids from television violence find their efforts frustrated. Take the example of television commercials shown during non-violent programming. Researcher Charles Anderson monitored all the commercials aired during the 1996 major league baseball playoffs. He found that overt violent content was common, consisting primarily of promotions for other television programs and big-screen movies. Seven percent of the commercials were violent in nature. Of those, 50% involved the use of guns. He concludes, AThe commercials deemed violent in this study were not subtle. Guns being held to victims heads, shootings, stabbings, forceful restraint, punching, bloody corpses, and burning bodies are easily described as violent and inappropriate for younger children.

While life can be violent and ugly at times, TV paints an unrealistic picture of what real violence is actually like. As a result, our kids can grow up with a false notion of reality. First, violence occurs far more frequently on TV than it does in the real world. The actual real-life violent-crime rate in America is only one-eighth of the violent-crime rate on TV. And second, crime has long-term ramifications and consequences for both the victim and aggressor. Crime hurts and kills people; criminals get caught and go to jail. I have been amazed by some of the stories I have read recounting incidents of violent juvenile crime. Kids don’t realize that there are consequences. One teenager was shocked to discover after getting shot that it actually bled and hurt!

What price, if any, do our kids pay for being on the receiving end of TV’s hefty diet of violence?

First, television may lead our children and teens to become immune to the horrors of violence. “So, what,” says the teen, in response to a mother’s horrified reaction to a graphic TV scene. “I’ve seen all this and much worse before. That’s nothing.” Our kids risk losing a sense of the true value and dignity of persons when they become insensitive to personal violence as well as violent behavior in society.

Second, children and teens can come to accept violence as a way to solve problems. Playground and backyard conflicts are being settled in ways that would make Dirty Harry proud. Youth-violence expert Deborah Prothrow-Stith says television teaches us that “good guys use violence as a first resort. Any amount of killing is all right, so long as one’s cause is just. Violence is a hero’s way to solve problems.” Dr. Aletha Huston of the University of Kansas says, “We keep pumping children with the messages that violence is the way to solve their problems–and some of it takes hold.” Huston’s own research shows that A children who watch the violent shows, even >just funny cartoons, were more likely to hit out at their playmates, argue, disobey class rules, leave tasks unfinished, and were less willing to wait for things than those who watched the nonviolent programs. As a result, thousands of kids walk the halls of America’s high schools and junior highs fearing for their lives each day. Numerous schools across the nation are instituting programs to teach kids that there are options other than fists, knives, and guns for settling disputes.

Third, television violence serves to make kids more aggressive. In 1960, Dr. Leonard Eron studied 875 third-grade boys and girls and discovered there was a direct relationship between the violent TV programs they watched and their aggressiveness in school. He again examined the subjects when they were thirty years old. Those who had watched significant amounts of violent television were more likely to have been convicted of more serious crimes, to be more aggressive when drinking, and to inflict harsher punishment on their children. Concludes Eron, “What one learns about life from the television screen seems to be transmitted even to the next generation.”

Fourth, kids might begin to imitate some of the more violent behaviors that they have seen on the small screen. In his study on television and violence, Dr. Brandon Centerwall found that following the introduction of television in the U.S., the annual white homicide rate increased by 93 percent from 1945 to 1974. While he doesn’t blame TV as the sole factor behind the rise in violence, he concludes that “if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults.” Studies of population data for various other countries shows that after the introduction of television into the culture, homicide rates double in 10 to 15 years. The recent rise in teen violence, especially on school campuses and among younger and younger children, is more evidence of the influence of televised violence.

And finally, kids develop an unrealistic view of the world. The world is in fact, a violent place. But cumulative exposure to media often results in mean world syndrome as children exhibit a heightened fear for their own personal safety.

Our children and teens imitate the world around them. Every week they turn on the TV and witness murders, rapes, assaults, gunplay, and a host of other violent activities. Heroes and villains solve problems and settle disputes with violence. What they don’t see is the horror and pain of the aftermath. What they don’t feel is the physical pain. What they don’t understand is the immorality of violent behavior. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that America has become the most violent of the industrialized nations with children and teens doing unto others what they have seen done thousands of times over on television. David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family summarizes this ugly reality: AIt is tragically ironic that at the very time we are wringing our hands about violent behavior among young people, we are simultaneously entertaining them with it.

What can you do to curb your child’s exposure to televised violence? Here are some suggestions to help you control and shape your child’s viewing habits:

<          Ban programs that are violent or offensive. This requires parental awareness. Watch an episode or two of the show in question. That way, you’ll be able to make an informed decision.

<          Limit your child’s viewing time and restrict viewing to shows that are educational in nature or shows that demonstrate respect, caring, and concern.

<          Process viewing of violent incidents by discussing them with your children. Always discuss the reasons and consequences of the violent incident. Teach your child about right and wrong by sharing your biblically informed analysis.

<          Discuss nonviolent responses and solutions to the problems television portrays. Be sure you teach your children that violence is not an acceptable, quick, and easy solution to problems.

<          And finally, offer an active alternative to passive television viewing. Get out and play with your kids. Spend large quantities of quality time talking, working on a hobby, etc. When kids enjoy good family time, they don’t miss TV time!


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