Violence: The New Indecency?

A viewer surfing primetime broadcast TV last fall could find a woman’s decapitated body hanging from a ceiling fan and a man with railroad spikes driven through his eye sockets on CSI: NY (CBS); or the body of a woman pinioned to her staircase with kitchen knives, next to a decapitated man on Heroes (NBC); or a deranged killer holding a knife to the neck of a kid at a birthday party, urging him to shoot his own mother with an AK 47 on Criminal Minds (CBS).

And if the neck-biting, back-stabbing, bus-bombing opening of Fox’s popular 24 this month is any indication, it’s bloody business as usual in 2007.

In recent years, as lawmakers have focused on flashes of skin and profanity, TV violence has become not only more pervasive but more graphic—even cartoonish in its gore. These days, a person isn’t simply shot; the camera gives a close-up of the bullet as it rips through skin and bone, then lingers on the autopsy. While the TV industry perennially tests regulators’ elusive definitions of indecency, critics and creators alike say the forces are now aligning for a crackdown on TV carnage.

The FCC is readying a report, two years in the making, prompted by, among others, the current chairmen of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the Telecommunications subcommittee. Among the issues the report addresses are the negative effects on kids of cumulative viewing, the limits on the FCC’s power to regulate violence, and the definition of “harmful” TV violence.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin may be looking to distribute the report before a Feb. 1 FCC oversight hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee. The House will probably hold a similar hearing soon after. While there are constitutional hurdles to regulating violence, they’re not insurmountable if Congress wants to give the FCC the authority.


Martin inherited the violence report and currently has his hands full with defending the FCC’s indecency policy. But he reiterated his concern over violent programming in a speech to advertisers just last week: “I have said that, with hundreds of channels to choose from, consumers today have access to some of the best programming ever produced. But television today also contains some of the coarsest and most violent programming ever aired.”

He quoted a survey that found that 58% of people believe there is too much cursing and sexual language on TV, 50% believe there is too much explicit sexual content and 66% of people believe there is too much violence on television.

Indeed, media critics seem emboldened by the shift in Congressional power to Democrats, who, according to an old Washington maxim, are as eager to crack down on TV violence as Republicans are to rein in TV sex. Tim Winter, the new head of the Parents Television Council (PTC), which recently released a report calling the 2005 TV season “one of the most violent in recent history,” plans to make TV violence his priority.

And although Hollywood discounts the conservative agenda of the PTC, the activist group has proved itself a force to be reckoned with on the indecency issue. It helped generate hundreds of thousands of e-mail complaints that propelled the FCC’s March release of a host of rulings on indecency and profanity, the latter challenged by broadcasters in federal court.

Some Congressional leaders aren’t waiting for the FCC report—or any court—to act. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a frequent media-violence critic, plans to take action. “Obviously, the preference would be to have the industry police itself when it comes to excessive violence,” he says. “However, if they can’t or won’t do it, then Congress must step in and address this growing societal problem.

“One of the most basic steps we can take is to give the FCC authority to regulate violence,” he adds, “and if necessary, the courts will then work out the constitutional issues on a case-by-case basis. Just sitting on our hands and doing nothing to protect children is not an option.” Rockefeller will re-introduce a bill giving the FCC the authority to regulate violence as it does indecency, according to a source with knowledge of the bill.

Many producers and creators defend most violent scenes as hardly gratuitous, critical to storylines and necessary for competing with critically acclaimed fare, such as The Sopranos and 24.

“We are very sensitive to our obligations regarding indecency and really have endeavored to make sure that what we have on-air is not indecent. We think we have been successful,” says Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group. “I am concerned about what chilling effect the increase in penalties is going to have. When you look at our 9/11 special, which was to me a wonderful special and very tasteful, 10% of our affiliates opted not to air it simply out of fear of the FCC. That to me is of great concern, especially as [the FCC] is shifting from just language and sex and casting a wider net.”

Media violence is an issue that surfaces periodically in Washington, from the hearings of Sen. Estes Kefauver (a Democrat) in the 1950s to efforts by Janet Reno (Democratic appointee) and Sen. Paul Simon (Democrat) in the early 1990s that led, ultimately, to the adoption of the V-chip.

But recently, as the media universe has become more splintered, many shows look to violent acts to heighten attention during powerful shifts in drama. Close-ups of violence—and increasingly, its repercussions—are staples of successful gritty police procedurals, such as the CSI series.

PTC’s report, titled “Dying To Entertain,” found that TV violence had increased 75% since a similar 1998 study “despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to a direct and causal relationship between violent entertainment products and aggression in children.” Increasingly, the report said, violent scenes included a sexual element. The group called on the industry to rein in the “alarmingly more frequent and more disturbing” content.

While the report looked only at broadcast primetime programming, Winter says he is also concerned about the syndication of violent shows like Law & Order or CSI in the afternoons and of the move to basic cable of the reruns of the ultra-violent Sopranos, which debuted on A&E recently to strong ratings. Unlike broadcast shows, cable programming is not currently subject to content regulation.

Winter, a former TV executive with MGM and NBC who took over the PTC reins from Brent Bozell Jan. 1, says that, without taking anything away from PTC’s indecency effort, “violence is far and away my number-one personal concern.”


The V-chip was supposed to fix all this. Designed to be a widespread tool for parents to block unwanted programming, it is not useful as a safeguard for parents, according to the FCC.

In defending its profanity decisions before a federal appeals court, the agency’s legal counsel argued that the V-chip isn’t effective because most people don’t know it’s available or how to use it and that, even if they did know how, the networks don’t consistently use the content descriptors that would help parents filter out programming.

Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, the network-backed lobby for the V-chip/ratings system, says that every show is rated but “whether a V or a FV or some other descriptor should be added to the rating is a subjective decision, just like what parents think is appropriate for kids to see is subjective.”

Taking issue with the FCC characterization that the chip is ineffective, House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a driving force behind its adoption, says it has “already become a very useful tool in millions of American households.” He cites a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation study that concluded that 42% of parents with a V-chip–equipped set had used the chip.

Markey and House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) were among those who tasked the FCC with producing the violence report, now being vetted by the commissioners. A number of members of the House Commerce Committee tried to make violence part of the indecency bill crafted in the wake of Janet Jackson’s infamously exposed breast. The bill was eventually pared down to only boost indecency fines.

In 2005, Rockefeller teamed with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to give the FCC explicit authority to regulate violence. That bill, which would also have extended that authority to cable and satellite, went nowhere, but the violence-definition part could get new life, particularly with Rockefeller now a prominent member of the Senate Communications Committee majority.


Communications attorney and former FCC General Counsel Jack Goodman says that adding violence to the definition of indecency would be a tough sell to the courts. Moreover, the legal definition of indecency is rooted in excretory or sexual functions, and historically, the FCC does not have authority to regulate violence as it has indecency.

Thus far, FCC chief Martin has made no secret of his agenda. According to the commission’s online Fact Sheet, “American television is the most violent in the world,” with the average American child “witnessing 12,000 violent acts on television each year” and violence up on the broadcast networks.

The FCC has “seen a dramatic increase in the number of indecency complaints,” Martin says. “And several years ago, Congress requested the FCC study 'Violent Television and Its Impact on Children.’ Our report finds that there is a deep concern among parents and health professionals regarding harm from viewing violence in the media.” He has pushed for industry solutions: notably a family hour, effective ratings, local stations’ ability to preempt programming, and, on the cable side, family tiers and à la carte.

Broadcast networks and show creators say they’ve self-regulated, even as cable shows have grown racier. “I feel like we self-regulated it once we started to see that [Heroes] is a show that people are watching with their families and skewing much broader with the age range than I thought it would,” says the show’s creator, Tim Kring. “I am sort of torn personally as a parent and as a producer trying to reach a broad audience. I am offended,” he adds, “by the FCC trying to get more involved in my business.”

Says Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise, “There is no violence on network TV that is objectionable, and there hasn’t been for years.”

Some in the production community aren’t so sure. “We agree that there is a problem,” says Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, whose membership includes NYPD Blue’s Steven Bochco and America’s Funniest Home Videos’ Vin Di Bona.

Rintels says the violence has gotten “a little more graphic, a little more bloody.” But he adds that the industry is just catching up with other media, like films and videogames, and that all are chasing a generation raised on that diet.

“We think the solution is technology and education, not government censorship,” he says. “If the V-chip isn’t working, fix it. If the ratings aren’t working, fix them. If people aren’t educated, educate them.”

Additional reporting by Ben Grossman and Anne Becker

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.