TV Violence and the Art of Asking the Wrong Question

The television violence overkill was first reported in a study by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters in 1951. The first Congressional hearings were held by Senator Estes Kefauver's Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. The usual industry suspects were rounded up and gave what have since become the usual promises of mending their ways "next fall."

Next fall and most subsequent seasons, violence further increased as the freeze on new TV frequency allocations established the unchallenged cultural hegemony of national network broadcasting.

What is Wrong?
Clearly, something is wrong. Broadcasters are licensed to serve "the public interest, convenience and necessity." They are paid to deliver receptive audiences to their business sponsors. Few industries are as public relations-conscious as television. What compels them to endure public humiliation, risk the threat of repressive legislation and invite charges of undermining health, security and the social order?

The usual rationalization that violence delivers the goods – it "gives the audience what it wants" – is disingenuous. As the trade knows well and as we shall see, violence as such is not highly rated. That means that it coasts on viewer inertia, not selection.

Unlike other media use, viewing is a ritual; people watch by the clock and not by the program. To the limited extent that some programs have a larger share of certain time-slots and can, therefore, extract a higher price for commercials, violent programs in those time slots may yield the broadcaster some marginal profits. For a robust industry, sensitive to public and legislative criticism, those incremental profits are hardly worth the social, institutional and political damage violent programs exact.

Something is wrong with the way the problem has been posed and addressed. A virtual obsession with asking the wrong question obscures the factors that in fact drive violence and trap the industry in a difficult dilemma. The usual question – "Does television violence incite real-life violence?" – is itself a symptom rather than diagnostic tool of the problem. Despite its alarming implications, and intent, or perhaps because of them, it distracts from focusing on the major conditions producing violence in society and limits discussion of television violence to its most simplistic dimension.

Violence is a complex scenario and social relationship. Whatever else it does, violence in drama and news demonstrates power. It portrays victims, as well as victimizers. It intimidates, as well as incites. It shows one's place in the "pecking order" that runs society. And, it "travels well" on the world market.

Changing the Debate
Let us, then, try to change the terms of the debate so that something might come of it.

Violence on television is an integral part of a system of global marketing. It dominates an increasing share of the world's screens. Despite its relative lack of popularity in any country, the system has far-reaching consequences. It inhibits other dramatic approaches to conflict, depresses independent television production, deprives viewers of more popular choices, victimizes some and emboldens others, heightens general intimidation and invites repressive postures that exploit the widespread insecurities it itself generates.

Behind the problem of television violence is, therefore, not only the simple problem of regulation (or industry self-regulation) but the more critical issue of who makes cultural policy in the post-electronic age. Reconsidering the debate about violence creates an opportunity to move the cultural policy issue to center stage, where it has long been in most other democracies.

The convergence of communication technologies concentrates control over the most widely shared messages and images. With all the technocratic fantasies about hundreds of channels, and with the anti-violence posturing filling the mass media, it is rare to encounter discussion of basic issues of policy. The questions we ought to be raising are these:

    • What creative sources and resources can provide what mix of content that flows along the "electronic superhighway" into every home?
    • Who will tell the stories to our children and for what underlying purpose?
    • How can we assure the survival of alternative perspectives?

These questions have been discussed and sometimes dealt with in the parliaments and legislatures of both established and newly emerging democracies. For example, France levies a 3 percent tax on theater admissions and a 2 percent tax on videotapes, which is paid into a fund for independent productions. Other countries in Europe and Scandinavia have comparable programs.

In the United States, these questions have not yet been placed on the agenda of public discourse.

What follows, then, is an attempt to formulate and address some prior questions we need to address before we can construct such an agenda.

    • What is new and different about television?
    • What systems of casting and fate dominate its representations of life?
    • What conceptions of reality do these systems cultivate?
    • Why does violence play such a prominent, pervasive and persistent role in them?
    • How [do we] deal with the current proliferation of violence while, at the same time, enhancing rather then further curtailing cultural freedom and diversity?

The New Cultural Environment
A child today is born into a home in which television is on an average of over seven hours a day. For the first time in human history, most of the stories about people, life and values are told not by parents, schools, churches, or others in the community who have something to tell but by a group of distant conglomerates that have something to sell.

This is a radical change in the way we employ creative talent and shape the cultural environment. Television is a relatively non-selectively used ritual. Other media require literacy, growing up, going out and making a selection based on some previously acquired criteria.

But most people watch by the clock and not by the program, and that means that TV is the only medium that will reach viewers with messages and images they would otherwise never select. All other media – films and print – are used selectively by people seeking out what interests them.

But there is no "before" with television. Television is there at birth and stays there throughout life. It helps to shape from the outset the predispositions and selections that govern the use of other media. Unlike other media, television requires little or no attention;its repetitive patterns are absorbed in the course of living. They become part and parcel of the family's style of life, but they neither stem from nor respond to its needs and wants.

The roles children grow into are no longer home-made, hand-crafted, community-inspired. They are products of a complex, integrated and globalized manufacturing and marketing system. Television violence is an integral part of that system.

Not All Violence is Alike
Of course, there is blood in fairy tales, gore in mythology, murder in Shakespeare. Not all violence is alike. Violence is a legitimate and even necessary cultural expression. Individually crafted, historically inspired, sparingly and selectively used expressions of symbolic violence can balance tragic costs against deadly compulsions. However, such tragic sense of life has been swamped by violence with happy endings produced on the dramatic assembly-line. This "happy violence" is cool, swift, painless and often spectacular, designed not to upset but to deliver the audience to the next commercial in a mood to buy.

How people and life are represented in the new cultural environment is not only a question of numbers. Representation cultivates a sense of opportunities and life chances. It contributes to our conceptions of who we are and how we relate to others and the world. It helps define our strengths and vulnerabilities, our powers and our risks. No longer can family and community engender a sense of self and of values without the presence in the home of a tireless stranger telling all the stories.

On the whole, prime-time television presents a relatively small set of common themes, and violence pervades most of them. The majority of network viewers have little choice of thematic context or character types, and virtually no chance of avoiding violence.

Nor has the proliferation of channels led to greater diversity of actual viewing. If anything, the dominant dramatic patterns penetrate more deeply into viewer choices through more outlets managed by fewer owners airing programs produced by fewer creative sources.

Casting and Fate
Annual monitoring and analysis of network television drama (see sidebar on the Cultural Indicators project) provides an aggregate bird's-eye view of familiar territory. It is what everybody watches but nobody sees – from the ground.

Casting and fate - the building blocks of the story-telling process - reflects and accommodates the violence scenario. Middle-class, white male characters dominate in numbers and power. Women play one out of three characters. Young people comprise one-third and old one-fifth of their actual proportions of the population. Most other minorities are even more underrepresented. That cast sets the stage for stories of conflict, violence and the projection of white male prime-of-life power.

The moderate viewer of prime-time television drama sees every week an average of 21 violent criminals arrayed against an army of 41 public and private law enforcers, most of them equally violent. There are, week in and week out, 14 doctors, 6 nurses, 6 lawyers and 2 judges to handle them. An average of 150 acts of violence and about 15 murders entertain us and our children every week, and that does not count cartoons and the news. Those who watch over three hours a day (more than half of all viewers) absorb much more.

About one out of three (31 percent) of all characters and more than half (52 percent) of major characters are involved in violence in any given week. The ratio of violence to victimization defines the price to be paid for committing violence. When one group can commit violence with relative impunity, the price it pays for violence is relatively low. When another group suffers more violence than it commits, the price is high.

In the total cast of prime-time characters, the average "risk ratio" (number of victims per 10 violent characters) is 12. But the price paid in victims for every 10 violent characters is 15 for boys, 16 for girls, 17 for young women, 18.5 for lower class characters, and over 20 for elderly characters. Women, children, poorer and older people and some minorities pay a higher price for violence than do white males in the prime of life.

Violence takes on an even more defining role for major characters. It involves more than half of all major characters (58 percent of men and 41 percent of women). Most likely to be involved either as perpetrators or victims, or both, are characters portrayed as mentally ill (84 percent), young adult males (69 percent) and Latino/Hispanic Americans (64 percent). Children, lower class and mentally ill or otherwise disabled characters, pay the highest price - 13-16 victims for every 10 perpetrators.

Lethal victimization extends the pattern. About 5 percent of all characters and 10 percent of major characters kill or are killed, or both. Most likely to be so involved are Latino/Hispanic and lower class characters. Being poor, old or a woman of color means double-trouble; they pay the highest relative price for projecting that kind of power.

Major characters who are "bad" are, of course, more likely to be killed than those portrayed as "good." But gender, race and age also matter. For every 10 positively valued men who kill, about 4 are killed. But for every 10 "good" women who kill, 6 are killed, and for every 10 women of color who kill, 17 are killed. Older women characters get involved in violence only to be killed.

The Cultural Indicators team calculated a violence "pecking order" by ranking the risk ratios of the different groups. Hurting and killing by most majority groups extracts a tooth for a tooth. Minority groups tend to pay a higher price for their show of force. Women, especially older women, children and youth, lower class, mentally disabled people and Asian Americans are at the bottom of the heap.

What Drives Television Violence?
Formula-driven violence in entertainment and news is not a reflection of freedom, viewer preference, or even crime statistics. It is the product of a complex manufacturing and marketing machine. Mergers, consolidation, conglomeratization and globalization fuel the machine.

"Studios are clipping productions and consolidating operations, closing off gateways for newcomers," notes the trade paper Variety on the front page of its August 2, 1993 issue. The number of major studios declines while their share of domestic and global markets rises. Channels proliferate while investment in new talent drops, gateways close and creative sources shrink.

Concentration brings streamlining of production (denying entry to newcomers, reducing the number of buyers and thus competition for the products) and increasing the dramatic formulas suitable for aggressive international promotion. Program production is costly, risky and hard-pressed by oligopolistic pricing practices. Most producers cannot break even on the license fees they receive for domestic airings. They are forced to go into syndication and foreign sales to make a profit. They need a dramatic ingredient that requires no translation, "speaks action" in any language and fits any culture. That ingredient is violence. (Explicit sex is a distant second. Ironically, it runs into more inhibitions and restrictions overseas.)

Syndicators demand "action" (the code word for violence) because it "travels well around the world," said the producer of Die Hard 2 (which killed 264 compared to 18 in the initial Die Hard). "Everyone understands an action movie. If I tell a joke, you may not get it but if a bullet goes through the window, we all know how to hit the floor, no matter the language."

Our analysis of international data shows that violence dominates U.S. exports. We compared 250 U.S. programs exported to 10 countries with 111 programs shown in the U.S. during the same year. Violence was the main theme of 40 percent of home-shown and 49 percent of exported programs. Crime/action series comprised 17 percent of home-shown and 46 percent of exported programs.

There is no evidence that, other factors being equal, violence per se is giving most viewers, countries and citizens "what they want." The most highly rated programs are usually not violent. The trade paper Broadcasting & Cable editorialized (Sept. 20, 1993, p. 66) that "the most popular programming is hardly violent as anyone with a passing knowledge of Nielsen ratings will tell you." The editorial added that "Action hours and movies have been the most popular exports for years..." i.e, with the exporters, not necessarily the audiences.

Of course, graphic violence in movies, videos, videogames and other spectacles attracts sizeable audiences. But those audiences are minuscule compared to the home audience for television. They are the selective retail buyers of what television dispenses wholesale. Even a small proportion of one-day's television audience addicted to explicit violence can make many movies and games spectacularly successful.

Most television viewers, however, suffer the violence daily inflicted on them with diminishing tolerance. Organizations of creative workers in media, health-professionals, law enforcement agencies and virtually all other media-oriented professional and citizen groups have come out against "gratuitous" television violence. A March 1985 Harris survey showed that 78 percent disapprove of violence they see on television. A Gallup poll of October 1990 found 79 percent in favor of "regulating" objectionable content in television. A Times-Mirror national poll in 1993 showed that Americans who said they were "personally bothered" by violence in entertainment shows jumped to 59 percent from 44 percent ten years earlier. Furthermore, 80 percent said entertainment violence was "harmful" to society, compared with only 64 percent in 1983.

Local broadcasters, legally responsible for what goes on the air, also oppose the overkill and complain about loss of control. Electronic Media reported on August 2, 1993, the results of its own survey of 100 general managers across all regions and in all market sizes. Three out of four said there is too much needless violence on television; 57 percent would like to have "more input on program content decisions."

The Hollywood Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors, speaking for the creative community, said in a statement issued in August 1993:

"We stand today at a point in time when the country's dissatisfaction with the quality of television is at an all-time high, while our own feelings of helplessness and lack of power, in not only choosing material that seeks to enrich, but also in our ability to execute to the best of our ability, is at an all-time low."

Far from reflecting creative freedom, the marketing of formula violence restricts freedom and chills originality. The violence formula is, in fact, a de facto censorship extending the dynamics of domination, intimidation and repression domestically and globally. The typical political and legislative response too often reflects, exploits and exacerbates those dynamics.

What are the Consequences?
These representations are not the sole or necessarily even the main determinants of what people think or do. But they are the most pervasive, inescapable, common and policy-directed cultural contributions to what large communities absorb over long periods of time.

Cultivation analysis attempts to assess those "lessons." It explores whether those who spend more time with television are more likely than lighter viewers to perceive the real world in ways that reflect common and repetitive features of the television world, the most pervasive of which is violence.

The systemic patterns observed in television content provide the basis for formulating survey questions about people's conceptions of social reality. Respondents in each sample are divided into those who watch the most television, those who watch a moderate amount and those who watch the least. Cultivation is assessed by comparing patterns of responses in the three viewing groups (light, medium and heavy) while controlling for important demographic and other characteristics.

The "Mean World Syndrome"
What do we find? Violence-laden television contributes significantly to the feeling of living in a mean and gloomy world. By far the most pervasive effect is that of a cluster of responses we call the "mean world syndrome."

Symbolic violence takes its toll on all viewers. However, heavier viewers in every subgroup (defined by education, age, income, gender, newspaper reading, neighborhood, etc.) express a greater sense of apprehension than do light viewers in the same groups. They are more likely than comparable groups of light viewers:

  • to overestimate their chances of involvement in violence;
  • to believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe;
  • to state that fear of crime is a very serious personal problem;
  • to assume that crime is rising, regardless of the facts of the case.

Heavy viewers are also more likely to buy new locks, watchdogs and guns "for protection."

Television's impact is especially pronounced in terms of how people feel about walking alone at night on a street in their own neighborhoods. Overall, less than a third of the light viewers, but almost half of the heavy viewers, say that being out alone at night on their own street is "not safe." Whatever real dangers may lurk outside people's homes, heavy television viewing is related to more intense fears and apprehensions.

The patterns of victimization on television and real-world fear, even if contrary to fact, are also related. Viewers who see their own group have a higher calculus of risk than those of other groups develop a greater sense of apprehension, mistrust and alienation &emdash; the "mean world syndrome." This unequal sense of danger, vulnerability and general unease, combined with reduced sensitivity, invites not only aggression but also exploitation and repression.

The projection of power is a function of all cultures and mainstream mass media. Television streamlines it, sanitizes it, puts it on the dramatic assembly line and discharges it into the world's common cultural environment.

An Epidemic of Fear
The "mean world" of television explodes with a powerful political fallout. Insecure people may be prone to violence but are even more likely to be dependent on authority and susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, hard-line postures. They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their anxieties.

Although violence is occurring at younger ages and plagues poorer (often minority) neighborhoods, the real epidemic we have is not homicidal violence but the fear of violence and the soaring rate of incarceration in what is already the most imprisonment-prone society in the industrial world. The more affluent are also imprisoned in their own neighborhoods and cars, afraid to walk in the city or to use public transportation.

Most politicians, however, cannot resist the appeal (and competitive pressure) of advocating ever harsher measures that have never reduced violence but always get votes.

What is the Alternative?
There is a liberating alternative. It exists in various forms in most other democratic countries, exemplified by elected or appointed representation in either advisory or policy-making capacity over the programming policy of TV systems. In the United States, what is needed is independent grass-roots citizen organization and action in order to provide the broad support needed for loosening the global marketing noose around the necks of producers, writers, directors, actors and journalists.

More freedom from violent and other inequitable and intimidating formulas, not more censorship, is the effective and acceptable way to increase diversity and reduce television violence to its legitimate role and proportion.

The role of Congress, if any, is to turn its anti-trust and civil rights oversight on the centralized and globalized industrial structures and marketing strategies that impose violence on creative people and foist it on the children of the world.

The role of citizens is to participate in creating new public policies that reverse the tide of violence by working for freedom from stereotyped formulas, for investing in a freer and more diverse cultural environment, and for citizen participation in cultural decisions that shape our lives and the lives of our children.


This article is reprinted with permission from The World & I; A Chronicle of Our Changing Era, July, 1994

Author Bio: 

George Gerbner is Bell Atlantic Telecommunications Professor at Temple University, and Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg Schoool for Communications, University of Pennsylvania. He is founder of the Cultural Environment Movement.