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.

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