Congressional hearings! Calls for a rating system! "Voluntary" attachment of parental advisory labels by the industry! The threat of legislation regulating subject matter if the industry doesn't enforce standards and clean-up it act. Does all of this sound familiar? I'm describing the PMRC's 1985 witch hunt against rock & roll lyrics, right? Wrong! The attacks listed above are happening right now; the industry this time is television and the issue is supposedly violence. However, when we at THE ROC heard about all of this, we suspected that Tipper Gore had to be behind it--perhaps acting in her capacity as America's Mental Health Advisor. And the facts show that the TV violence censors are in bed--both literally and figuratively--with music censors such as the PMRC.
Starting in September, the four networks began airing warning labels before programs with violent content. Pressure from Congressional hearings, as well as attacks on TV violence from citizen watchdog groups such as the Foundation to Improve Television, and Americans for Responsible TV, brought about this "voluntary" move. The warning will read: "Due to some violent content, parental discretion is advised." Of course, rap and metal fans know that our music has long been accused of promoting or causing violence. But attempts to ban violence on TV have also been going on for years, and have many connections to the attempts to censor rock & roll. Moreover, the TV warning labels, like record company warning stickers, will have a chilling effect on artists' free speech rights.
What's the rationale for these attacks? It seems that most researchers now agree that watching TV causes aggressive behavior. It would be easy to dismiss their "evidence" as utter bullshit, but more instructive to take a look at the way these researchers conduct their studies. The method used by many is known as content analysis. Using content analysis, the researcher must choose times and places to examine certain shows. Then he has to classify these shows' messages content under clearly defined categories. One of these categories is "violence," and all behaviors that send a certain message fall into that category.
This lumping together of all violent behaviors into the "violence" category suggest that all televised violent behavior are the same and that they all give out the same message, which CBS president Howard Stringer recently suggested is, "it's all right to shoot someone. It's cool to kill someone. It's all right not to have remorse. Someone is dead and it's, 'Hasta La Vista, good-bye Charlie." And this, according to the researches, is the message that children receive when they decode "violent" programs. According to this method then, "The A Team," "Twin Peaks," the Three Stooges, a Jackson Brothers video, and the evening news all send out a pro-violence message. As Dave Marsh has written, "the real agenda of the TV violence censors is to define "violence" as a category which is always and inevitably a bad thing, and a category to which free speech doesn't apply."
Another aspect of content analysis is that it measures violence quantitatively rather than qualitatively. That means that it's concerned with how much violence there is on TV, rather than what kind. Context is not often taken into account. Which character committed the violent act? What was his personality and what are his values? What was his motivation for doing it, and what were the conditions in which he did it? These vital questions are not answered by content analysis. Instead, researches come up with figures and statistics: a study done in 1973 found that by the age of 12, the average child will have watched 101,000 violent episodes on TV, including 13,400 deaths. Another study found that in one day's TV violence, there are 362 scenes of gunplay. Yeah, but out of context, how the hell do we know the meaning of these violent acts?
One guy who knows how to generate statistics is psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Radecki, master of quantitative content analysis and the research director of the National Coalition on TV Violence (NCTV). In 1984, this group, which is mainly made up of doctors and teachers, did a one month study of violence in 900 music videos shown on MTV and WTBS. The average amount of violent acts was 17.9 per hour. According to Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave in "Anti-Rock: The Opposition of Rock & Roll," heavy metal videos were said to have the most violence. Radecki stated, "The intense sadistic and sexual violence of a large number of rock videos is overwhelming." Predictably, these researches found that the message of these videos was negative, regardless of the context that the violent behavior took place in: Radecki even objected to the slapstick in "The Curley Shuffle."
Music videos are the common ground on which the anti-TV violence censors meet the anti-rock and rap censors. Dr. Thomas Radecki testified at the PMRC's Senate hearings in 1985, stating that nearly half of all music videos contain violence. Dr. Radecki is also on the PMRC's National Advisory Board. Predictably, this censor was recently charged in Illinois with "engaging in immoral conduct with a patient." (see THE ROC #9).
Like rock, TV is a form of popular culture, and by virtue of its being such is hated and attacked by both Right and Left. Like the moves to censor rock & rap, the efforts to censor TV violence bring together both Democratic and Republican politicians: the Congressional censors that instigated the TV violence hearings were Senator Paul Simon of Illinois and Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats. Simon's wife, Jeanne H. Simon, was one of the signers of the original letter the PMRC sent to the RIAA--now you see why it's not just a metaphor to say that the TV violence censors are in bed with the music censors! The Congressional hearings obtained by the PMRC brought Democratic censors Albert Gore and James Exon together with Republican censors like John Danforth.
Like album warning labels, TV violence warning labels are just the first step towards removal of access: Rep. Markey, who originally favored a "V" rating for violent shows, is looking forward to the new computer chip censorship devise called the Parental Control System. The chip will be sold to manufacturers of TV's, VCR's and cable TV set top converters, and will allow parents to block out violent shows (or any show with a "V" rating, under Markey's proposal) from their kids. This is similar to the PRMC's demand that violent music be rated "X". And like the music industry, the networks have decided to help the censors rather than fight them--NBC's chief programmer Warren Littlefield says that rather than debating whether TV contributes to violence in society, the networks "will be part of the solution."
And what about Tipper Gore herself? Is she involved? A call to the office of the Vice President was uninformative. I was told that Tipper's press person, Sally Aman, was on vacation, and that Tipper herself was now involved with "mental health." No news there.
Are the PMRC's old friends, the NCTV involved? Of course! I called a few NCTV members to get more information, but they were singularly unhelpful. Dr. Lieberman nervously admitted that the NCTV was indeed talking to Congressmen and the entertainment industry, but wouldn't tell me more. Dr. Gould suggested I call someone else.
One of the videos Radecki had vehemently objected to was Heaven's "Rock School." According to Martin and Seagrave, the video apparently contains a violent high school principal and shows acts of violence such as punks dumping their books in the trash and rioting to rock & roll. Like the censorship of rock & rap, then, the censorship of TV violence is really censorship of political messages. It's meant to suppress inconvenient or threatening subject matter.
The censorship of cartoons demonstrates how censoring TV violence is political (although network executives say that cartoons and sports won't have warning labels). Suzanne Williams has compared values in cartoons in their two historical periods: pre-1950, when they were shown in theatres, and post-1950, when they were shown on TV. Because they were uncensored, theatre cartoons circa 1945 were found to actually have more violence than the TV ones. By 1985, cartoons were being criticized for violence and monitored by citizen groups such as Action For Childrens Television. In uncensored 1945 cartoons, the characters resisted authority and the government (Daffy Duck was a draft dodger!) and were non-conformist individuals. Censored 1985 cartoons such as "Muppet Babies" and "Scooby's Mystery Funhouse" stressed conformity.
Since I'm a popular culture fan, I believe that pop culture, including TV shows, is potentially very good for children. The problem isn't a child seeing violence on TV. The problem isn't anybody watching anything on TV. The problem is that people, including adults, sometimes tend to watch passively. If you aren't taught to think critically and instead simply accept everything you watch, then yeah, pop culture can hurt you. We've got to teach children how to watch TV critically. This can't happen, though, if a kid isn't permitted to see something, because there is no way for him/her to watch it critically and think about it. By keeping children in the dark, the censors encourage passivity. They tell kids they are too weak and impressionable to withstand seeing violence on TV. And since kids haven't been taught how to deal with it, they can't deal with it. I guess passive children are just easier to control than aggressive ones.
In a way, it's the shielding of children from violent TV that actually hurts them. It does nothing but make them unable to deal with the real world, because violence is part of reality--it's not just coincidence that most of the shows censored for violence are reality-based shows like "Top Cops." I'm no parent, but I think that if a child wants to see a violent show, the parent should watch it with the child and discuss it with him or her. This might be a good way to teach the child about the destructiveness of real life violence.
However, many argue for censorship on the grounds that some parents have to work long hours to make ends meet and so aren't around to guide their children, but that serious problem has to do with America's ruined economy. We'll solve it by struggling to change the system, not by reducing TV violence. At a conference on TV violence held in Beverly Hills on August 2, panelist and researcher George Gerbner stated that "passing the buck" to parents is the classic cop-out; and that it's an "upper middle class conceit" to expect working parents to be involved with what their children watch on TV. When the ABC moderator suggested that the real upper middle class conceit might be on the part of educated researchers who believe that working class parents can't raise their kids properly, Gerbner did not say anything. In fact, research done by one of the panelists at the conference, Leonard D. Exon, suggests that the lower the parent's socio economic status, the more aggressive their kids! To me, this is just another example of the classic impetus of censorship: middle-class people worrying about what effect entertainment has on a "lower" class of people. Of course, the researchers can watch TV violence all day and not be affected by it. Guess they're more sophisticated than we are.
So will warning labels have any effect? In Time Magazine, Richard Zoglin writes, "as production for the new season gets under way, the impact of the new label is shaping up as substantial, maybe even crippling." Steven Bocho's new program "NYPD Blue" is the only show that will have a weekly label, and already many ABC network affiliates are not airing the show. Thanks to the censorship climate, ABC ditched plans to broadcast Martin Scorsese's great gangster film "Goodfellas." Crime show producer Dick Wolf says, "The mechanism is in place for truly Draconian kinds of controls...I came out of the advertising industry. They hate controversy. The easier way to avoid controversy, is 'Hey, we don't go on anything with an advisory." Wolf believes that a show like "Miami Vice" could not be shown today. We should keep in mind that one of the last categories of subject matter that censors defined as inevitably harmful was "drugs." The effect of that was that ABC Broadcast Standards didn't want to do any movies that showed teenagers using drugs, even if the program's message was against drug abuse.
What effect will the label have on music on TV? MTV, whose censorship board already regularly cuts words and images from its videos, has announced that it will join the networks in labeling its programs. "Beavis and Butthead," a show that was sure to attract the censors, was always preceded with a warning. Will the label precede individual videos? If so, will videos with labels be stuck in some after-hours limbo (like Beavis and Butthead is now)? Will videos be edited to avoid being labeled? Editing just one shot out of a video can have a huge effect. For example, Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" video based on a real incident, is about a persecuted schoolboy committing suicide by shooting himself in front of his classmates during Show 'n' Tell. Many people don't know that, however, because MTV censored the shot in which the boy puts a gun to his head. When I tell people what really happens at the end of "Jeremy," they're often surprised, but the information does clear up the video for them. Explains why the kids in the front row have splatters of blood on their shirts, for one thing, if not the looks on their faces. "Jeremy" could have been even more devastating than it is, if not for the censored shot. As for rap, MTV's censorship board will simply reject the whole clip. The Geto Boys had their great "Crooked Officer" video, which includes actual footage of police violence against people throughout recent history, rejected. Because of censorship, rappers like Ice T aren't able to document police violence on TV the way they do on records (they won't be able to do that either, if the cops have their way.)
To rap and metal fans, "aggressive" and "violent" are not perjorative terms, anyway--in fact, they're cential to what rock & roll's always been about. As Charlie Gillet wrote in The Sound of the City, "the importance of the music, for the singers and the audience was that it effected a release of violent feelings, not that any particular group was attacked." When you listen to rap or metal, you feel as though the music is blowing away whoever you're pissed off at. That's the reason why, even if they're not specifically targets, the power elite feels threatened by aggressive rap and metal. The music is the expression of disenfranchised people, who the power elite does not like to see release violent feelings. The job of the censors is to put a lid on those feelings and force artists to put out "positive and pro-social" messages.
So what can we as anti-censorship activists do? Advertisers are already scared to support controversial programs, so we have to support those programs now more than ever. We can do this by writing to the sponsors of our favorite shows and telling them we won't buy their products if they remove their ads from labeled shows. And if the company cooperates with censors, or actually supports censorship, as Burger King has, we should boycott! Let's not let Donald Wildmon's AFA and CLear-TV be the only ones scaring the sponsors. Also, we should write to the networks and explain to them why violence shouldn't be censored. We have to insist on seeing violent acts in their proper context. In other words, we simply have got to be vigilant, unless we want to give up on TV and free speech altogether.
Violence isn't always and inevitably a bad thing, either in TV or in real life. Anyway, it's hypocritical for the US government to hold hearings about TV violence. Wasn't bombing Iraq violent, and didn't it send a very powerful message? Don't get me wrong, I am against children being exposed to violence. I'm against children being homeless--that's violent. I'm against police shooting innocent kids in the streets, that's violent. But worrying about toning down TV violence--while saying nothing about the corrupt system that allows children in this country to live in poverty, sure won't do a damn thing to bring about a peaceful world.
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