The research, by Leeds University, found viewers reject crude "counting blows" definitions of violence that purport to show a tidal wave of violence on the screen. In contrast, the National Viewers and Listeners Association claimed yesterday that Britain is being swamped by television images of a "hate-filled fantasy world".
But "Defining Violence", a report sponsored by the main broadcasters, the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, has found viewers are much more sophisticated in their attitudes to television violence than previously believed.
The researchers showed 96 people from different age groups and social backgrounds clips from Tom and Jerry, the sitcom Bottom, Brookside and movies such as Pulp Fiction Schindler's List and Ladybird Ladybird. They found viewers are able to judge whether they think physical assaults on screen are "fair" rather than just reacting to the strength of the violence portrayed. They are most concerned when the balance of power between protagonists is unequal.
The scenes that most disturbed the group were acts of domestic violence in the Ken Loach film Ladybird Ladybird. The real-life setting and nature of the violence made the scene more real than anything in less life- like programmes.
Despite finding Ladybird Ladybird very violent, the respondents thought the violence was acceptable because of its purpose in the context of the overall film. Ironically, when the film was shown in 1997, the Broadcasting Standards Commission upheld complaints about the violence. The BSC said it would now reconsider that ruling.
The study found that the use of humour undermines the power of violence, so much so that a group of women aged 60-plus from Bristol were undisturbed by the scene in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction when the character played by John Travolta inadvertently shoots someone in the head. One woman told the researchers: "I wouldn't say it was violent. It was quite comical actually - he was so casual about it." The pensioners were much more worried about the characters' bad language than their violence and younger groups found the scene very funny.
"The report this week from the National Viewers and Listeners is not worth the paper it is written on," said David Morrison, research director of Leeds University's Institute of Communications Studies and author of "Defining Violence".
"It fails to ask what is meant by violence."