Cable magnate Ted Turner didn't win any friends last week when he told a congressional subcommittee that television executives shoulder the blame for escalating homicide rates. But then the colorful cable magnate never has minced words. TV programmers "are guilty of murder as far as I can see," he said. "They all are. Me, too." He then suggested that if the TV industry did not adopt a voluntary ratings system, the Congress should "ram it down their throats."
Chances are, plenty of Americans would agree with him. Congress is beginning to pay attention to the increasing numbers of people -- social science "experts" as well as common-sense parents -- who complain that gratuitous violence is having an effect on child behavior. Yesterday, executives from the four major networks -- NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox -- announced a voluntary system of providing warnings about programs containing violence. In the fall, the networks will begin violent shows with the advisory, re-broadcast it during station breaks and give newspapers and magazines advance notice of violent content for TV listings.
That's a welcome step, but it's less than it seems. According to the networks, no series currently airing is violent enough to qualify for regular advisories. Neither will cartoons, a staple of children's television and often little more than orgies of animated violence. Moreover, TV executives shudder at the thought of negative advertiser reaction to any sign that networks might cool their love affair with brutality. Violence sells.
But advertisers need a medium, and if broadcasters banded together to enforce meaningful reforms, they would have less to fear. Cable operators work independently but they have said they will also be considering action on the issue. Mr. Turner has already said that his channels will carry advisories about violent programming.
These voluntary steps are welcome, but they are an effort to stave off more stringent regulations from Congress. In fact, yesterday's press conference came one day before a scheduled hearing on legislation to combine a ratings system for all programming with new technology that would allow parents to block reception of violent programs.
Clearly the television industry responds to threats of congressional action. We urge Congress to keep a close watch on the advisory system when it goes into operation this fall. The big stick of threatened regulation can teach broadcasters an important lesson. The "zap 'em" mentality so prevalent on televsion does not bode well for the future of a diverse, gun-soaked society.