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The Chilling Field

On that classic cop show Hill Street Blues, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to end his daily roll call with a stern reminder to the beat cops: “Let's be careful out there.”

As our cover story attests, it's advice that the networks—broadcast and cable—ought to heed on excessive violence.

Hear us clearly. We're unalterably opposed to any legislation or regulation that would let the government tell networks what we should be watching. We are quite sure there has never been a more effective censor than the On-Off switch. There are no better regulators than viewers themselves when they choose to act on their judgment, armed with new tools provided by the industry. The V-chip, which once appeared to be a threat to edgy programming, could be its salvation.

But the FCC and Congress may again gang up on the networks over violence. Even if no laws are passed, the potential to chill content is a clear and present danger.

It's an issue that plays well with many Americans who believe that television is more violent and, to use FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's description, “coarser” than it used to be.

Television is also better than it has ever been. Shows that contain violence—ranging from The Sopranos to The Shield to CSI and Law & Order—are (probably in descending order) often violent. But they are also remarkably well-crafted, some of the best television ever.

All mass media, from videogames to movies, have grown more explicit. But movies, at the cinema or from Netflix, cost money. Television is just there, and maybe that's the problem. Nielsen says during fall 2006, the average household TV was on for 7 hours and 55 minutes and the average person watched for 4 hours and 19 minutes a day. Its ubiquity makes television a target.

The Ad Council and the television industry are in the midst of a $300 million effort to educate viewers and caregivers about using safeguards, including the V-chip. We still think education is the best solution to the violence “problem.”

With or without a campaign, though, broadcast and cable networks must take care to prevent on-air promotions of violent TV shows or raunchy comedies from popping up at times young people would likely see them. And commercials for theatrical movies are the worst offenders we've seen.

We are also unconvinced when programmers declare that they can't know the boundaries of the viewing public. Meeting viewer expectations is their job.

Where violence is gratuitous or unnecessarily graphic, programmers better fix it. But neither Congress nor the FCC should take that job away from them.