The networks got a report card on television violence yesterday that was presented to the press as a mixed review, with even a few kudos for their prime-time performance.
The report card came from a yearlong, industry-funded study at UCLA's Center for Communication Policy. Jeffrey Cole, the report's author, said that outside of a few shows -- such as CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger" and Fox's "X-Files" -- network television deals responsibly with violence in most prime-time series.
On the other hand, he acknowledged, violence is regularly gratuitous and excessive in children's shows and several other kinds of network programming, such as theatrical films and on-air promotions.
"The other hand" was not the one being emphasized at UCLA or in Washington yesterday. But that's the one that should concern parents, according to children's advocates. Just as Cole stressed that incidents of television violence must be examined within their context, leaders of the television reform movement said the report must also be seen in its own context.
"I saw the study as a sort of ploy to get the public and the press off the backs of the television industry," said Kathryn Montgomery, executive director of the Center for Media Education, a reform group. "That's not to say it's not a legitimate study. . . . But there is a political factor involved."
The study was, in fact, the outgrowth of a political debate. Sen. Paul Simon initiated the study in 1993 as a compromise with the networks instead of introducing legislation to regulate television violence. It came after the networks retaliated against Simon's congressional hearings by trying to paint the liberal Illinois Democrat as a censor. The four major networks selected UCLA to conduct the three-year study. Yesterday's report covers year one, the 1994-'95 television season.
"The report points to tangible improvements, but also room for progress in the depiction of violence by the broadcast networks," Simon said in a statement yesterday.
Calling the study "the best current overview yet produced of the subject of entertainment violence," he said it showed the networks were doing better when it comes to television violence.
Simon also said the study proved that self-regulation can work and urged his congressional colleagues to reject legislative solutions -- a reference to the V-chip, a device that would allow parents to block out violent programs. (V-chip amendments were recently passed by both the House and Senate and are expected to become law as part of a sweeping communications reform act.)
The study did not prove the networks are doing better on television violence.
Cole said his study could not be used to justify saying television violence is increasing or decreasing.
"This is not a violence count, and it's not an effects-study," Cole said in a telephone interview. "It's an attempt to try and look at the context in which broadcast violence occurs.
"Our operating principle is that we are trying to do what we think parents would do, if they could preview all of network television for the children," he added. "That is to say, they would not eliminate all violence, per se, or else no one would let their children see 'Bambi' or 'Beauty and the Beast.' What we think most people are concerned with is context."
Cole defined violence without context as: "violence that is not punished, violence that does not have consequences, scenes that are too graphic for the story, and violence that is shown too early in the evening, such as at 8 p.m."
By those standards, the study found 10 of the 121 weekly prime-time series raised "frequent concerns." They included such programs as CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger" and Fox's "X-Files."
"In 'Walker, Texas Ranger,' we would argue that the real premise of that show is Chuck Norris beating up people -- with much more graphic and longer violent scenes than the story would require," Cole said.
As for "X-Files," Cole said, "In many ways we found it commendable . . . but we found on some occasions, it did become too graphic, too intense."
Cole's researchers also found eight series that raised "occasional concerns." They included ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" and Fox's "The Simpsons."
While Cole sounded like he was tap dancing a bit on some of the prime-time series, such as "X-Files," there was no wiggle room in his assessment of kids' television -- especially such shows as Fox's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."
"Children's programs that feature sinister combat violence are gaining popularity, which is a disturbing sign," Cole said. "The promise of confrontation is the signature of these shows. Characters frequently are eager to fight and do so with little hesitation."
The report also criticized promotions by the networks that air during children's shows, feature the most violent material, and almost always appear without context. "The result is a world of promotion . . filled with the worst scenes of violence from all the programs," the report said.
As for the violence advisories that the networks instituted two years ago in response to Simon's hearings, the report said, "We found that there was no consistency in the use of advisories about violent programming, particularly on made-for-television movies."
"Most of the television movies that raised concerns about violence aired without advisories," he added.
The only broadcaster who comes out with what seems like genuine praise for its handling of violence is PBS. And viewers already know that.
This report is not going to help parents better understand how to protect their kids from television violence.
In fact, the inevitable spin on the report will probably only add to the confusion.
Simon says the report shows networks are doing better. But last month, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association issued a report saying television violence is up 23%.
Who to believe?
Watch and judge for yourself in coming nights.
On Friday (unless there's some last-minute editing), you'll see a new series on CBS, "American Gothic," that opens with a sheriff killing a young girl by snapping her neck. This comes after her father knocks her unconscious by hitting her in the head with a shovel. Later in the episode, the sheriff kills the father.
I wonder if that will qualify as "frequent concern" or "occasional concern" under the UCLA guidelines.