Out of America: TV moguls find that violence might not pay

WASHINGTON - Just an egregious example of crocodile tears - or is there the faint glimmer of a chance that an era of peace and loving kindness is about to dawn on the killing fields of the American television networks? Whatever else, though, it was a bizarre spectacle on Capitol Hill last week. A selection of top television executives were testifying to the Senate's Judiciary Sub-committee on the Constitution. Shamefacedly, the assembled luminaries confessed they were 'not proud' of the programmes in the latest instalment of the 'May ratings sweep', the regular spring battle for viewers among the major networks, which determine the all-important advertising rates they may charge during the summer months.

The modesty was not misplaced. A precise death, rape and battery count for what TV critics now dub 'Murder Month' will not be in for a few days yet. But last weekend saw a climax of kinds. These days, the networks' preferred format for small- screen violence is the dramatised true story. I missed ABC's flagship contribution on Saturday night, entitled Deadly Relations, which recreates the tale of how a drug- and alcohol-crazed former navy officer slaughtered members of his family. But I did catch the most heavily trailed offering of the season - Ambush in Waco, NBC's dramatisation of the events leading up to the first attack on the Branch Davidian compound at Mount Carmel in which four police agents died and 15 more were wounded.

For sheer newsiness, you have to hand it to NBC. They started work the day after the 28 February raid, and had the finished two-hour product, mostly filmed near Tulsa, Oklahoma, at a purpose-built replica of the cult headquarters, on the air in less than three months. And by the standards of the genre it wasn't bad at all. The story was vividly told, and the portrayal of messiah-cum-maniac David Koresh was compellingly believable. But the fact remains that all was a build-up to the shoot-out at the end, lasting a full seven minutes and leaving not a spatter of blood or scream of agony to the imagination.

Such are Sunday evenings around the family hearth here. But as those congressional hearings a day or two before suggest, the TV moguls now have to explain themselves.

Concern at the endemic violence on American television is nothing new, and no longer only in the US. A fortnight ago, an 18- year-old in Manitoba went on a killing spree; he told police he had modelled his deeds on another ABC special this month called Murder in the Heartland, based on the true story of a MidWestern teenager who in 1958 shot dead the family of his 14- year-old girlfriend after her parents told her to end the relationship. And that was orderly Canada. In this trigger-happy country, who knows how many crimes are similarly inspired?

America is a country addicted to numbers, and those pertaining to small-screen violence are mind-boggling: in the random month of February, according to Nancy Signorielli, Professor of Communications at the University of Delaware, violence featured in 63 per cent of prime- time network programmes, at the rate of five incidents an hour. The American Psychological Association has calculated that by the time a child reaches the age of 11, he or she will have already watched 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 lesser acts of brutality - not counting the real-life mayhem on the news bulletins, be it from Bosnia or the Bronx. A study monitored 10 local channels around Washington during a single 18-hour span one day last year: it counted 1,846 instances of violence.

Just maybe, however, there is reason to hope. The polls show an ever-growing majority of the population, 80 per cent in one survey, which feels matters have gone too far. And time may be running out for the networks. A 1990 bill sponsored by Democratic Senator Paul Simon, the Judiciary Sub-committee's chairman, in effect gave them three years to clean up their act voluntarily. If not, Mr Simon and his colleagues warn, new measures may come, ranging from computer chips blocking shows rated as violent to federal sanctions against offending broadcasters.

To which, of course, the TV men object with lofty speeches about the evil of censorship and the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. But they have been worried enough to schedule an unprecedented meeting in Los Angeles this summer to address the whole issue of violence. Normally one would not expect too much of this - the networks live by profits after all, and is not violence a sure-fire winner? In fact, the ratings suggest, not so.

If that penny drops, then last week's tears on Capitol Hill may be real after all, and Murder Month a thing of the past.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for someone wi...

Recruitment Genius: Building Manager / Head Porter

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Medical Copywriter / Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Clerk / Debriefer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading temperature contro...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific