To What Effect?

February 8, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: Researchers from four universities this morning announced findings of what they described as the most comprehensive scientific assessment of television violence ever conducted. The study was funded by the National Cable Television Association.

Here are some of the findings: Industry-wide 57 percent of the programs surveyed showed some kind of violence. Premium cable channels contained the most violence. T

here was violence in 85 percent of their programming. On network television, 44 percent of programming included violence. And on public TV, 18 percent of programs showed violence.

Researchers also focused on how programs depicted the consequences of violence. 47 percent of all violent acts showed no harm to victims, and in 73 percent of the violent scenes, the perpetrators were unpunished.

Here with me now is a senior researcher of the study, Dale Kunkel of the University of California Santa Barbara, and Winston Cox of the National Cable Television Association. Gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us.

Let me start with you, Dale Kunkel. What’s the major finding of the study?

DALE KUNKEL, UC Santa Barbara: Well, the major finding isn’t a finding at all. It’s a premise. And the premise is that not all violence has the same impact on the audience. Because of that, what we’ve done is we’ve isolated important contextual factors that are associated with the presentation of violence that increased the risk of a negative psychological effect on the audience.

JEFFREY KAYE: But your assumption going into this was that there is a correlation between violent behavior and violence on TV?

DALE KUNKEL: Oh, there’s no question, and in fact, there are three primary types of antisocial effects that we’re concerned with here. One is learning aggressive attitudes and behaviors. A second is desensitization to the victims or the harms that are suffered by victims of violence, and then also the fear of being victimized by violence that comes with a heavy dose of violent viewing.

JEFFREY KAYE: Now, it can’t come as a surprise to anyone that there’s lots of violence on TV. Were there any surprises for you?

DALE KUNKEL: Well, no, our finding about the overall prevalence of violence came in at 57 percent for all of the programs that we sampled. That, in fact, is a little bit lower than some previous research that’s been done by Gerbner in the past, although he focused exclusively on prime-time shows.

But that’s not the key finding because part of that violence might, in fact, be presented in a way that’s pro-social, i.e., it could discourage violence by or violent behavior subsequently because it portrays the negative consequences, the harms that are associated with violence. So our big task was to sort out what types of depictions are most harmful or have the greatest risk from those that are not.

Among the key findings you’ve shared is the finding that about two or three quarters of all programs have scenes of violence in which there is no punishment. That means the hero is rewarded in some way, or the criminal gets away with it, or something like that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mm-hmm. What about for children’s programming? There are obviously major concerns about what this all means for kids. What did you find with respect to children’s programming?

DALE KUNKEL: Well, children’s programming poses two particular issues. One is that when violence is shown, it rarely describes or includes any depictions of long-term negative consequences.

JEFFREY KAYE: What does that mean?

DALE KUNKEL: There’s no–well, for example, if you commit violence, are you ashamed? Are you socially stigmatized, or is it demonstrated clearly that this is unacceptable behavior that has tremendous costs? Also, there is concern about depicting pain and harm for victims of violence to demonstrate that violence really hurts. It’s not clean and sanitized, as you might see on television.

JEFFREY KAYE: And is children’s programming any better or any worse than the rest of the programming?

DALE KUNKEL: In fact, it’s among the worst in that area, and the other factor associated with children’s programs is that they often depict violence in a humorous context, which seems to trivialize violence.

JEFFREY KAYE: What do you expect will be done with some of these findings?

DALE KUNKEL: Well, I think that they are going to be communicated to the creative community, to the broadcast industry, to the cable industry, and it’s really out of our hands. I mean, our job was to describe the television landscape, and to leave it to others in terms of how they respond. I will say that all the interactions I’ve had with industry personnel to date suggest that they are interested in taking it seriously and reflecting on the social responsibility of their portrayals.

JEFFREY KAYE: Okay. We’re going to have an interaction with one of those industry personnel, Mr. Cox. Why was this undertaken? Why spend, what is it, $3 million–almost over $3 million on this study?

WINSTON COX, National Cable TV Association: Well, at an industry conference out here in Los Angeles, almost three years ago, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois challenged that gathering in a speech that he made to undertake such a study of the content of our programming and to issue, in effect, a public report card.

And if we did that regularly, he thought that would be a good way for the television industry and the public to stay abreast of, of this matter, and indeed might be sufficient motivation for the industry to respond to, to the problem, if you will. So in many respects we have to credit Paul Simon for these undertakings and quite honestly, we’re delighted with the results that we see here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Delighted in what respect? This shows a lot of violence on television?

WINSTON COX: Well, I remember back when we first initiated a request for proposals from various organizations that, like Dale represents, to undertake this study, and the proposal we got from, from Dale and his colleagues was the most rigorous and potentially the most–you know, the most thorough and most thoughtful, and every executive in that group opted, let’s go for the best one, the one that’s going to be the most thorough.

JEFFREY KAYE: But did you–it’s been suggested that one of the reasons–in fact, you told me this– you thought that this might help ward off what you saw as obvious and expected attacks from, from Congress.

WINSTON COX: Yeah. There was some thought that this study, this report card, if it were done annually, might be sufficient, sufficient information to the public to, to not lead members of Congress to feel we needed even stricter regulation in the industry.

Then that was part of the thought at the time, but quite honestly, most studies of violence in the past have been just simply numerical counts of the acts of violence, so we would get information that would say this show had eight acts of violence, this show had six acts of violence, without any sense of the context of the show.

And as we had discussed, a “Schindler’s List” is a very different kind of show with its violence than say a movie like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” One has a very positive message, one much less so.

JEFFREY KAYE: But now you have this information. Does this simply give your critics even more ammunition? Sen. Hollings, for example, is proposing a bill that would ban violent programs during hours when children are watching. Both Clinton, the President, and Sen. Dole have spoken out on this issue. Don’t they just have more ammunition now?

WINSTON COX: Well, that’s the risk you run certainly. There are a lot of agendas out there of critics of television. And Sen. Hollings’s Safe Harbor Bill is just one of the things that is being considered.

But I think that, you know, holding aside sort of those issues, the industry now has some valuable information about ways in which violence in our programming can have a positive impact on the viewers, particularly children, and those which have a negative impact, and that’s, that’s important information for us as we move down the road.

JEFFREY KAYE: What are you going to do with this information?

WINSTON COX: Well, I think that the, certainly the cable programmers will be sitting down with the creative community, sharing this information, and suggesting that, look, as we develop programs in the future, let’s keep these contextual issues in mind and I think you’ll see a dramatic shift in the analyses in future years.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why? Why should there be a shift?

WINSTON COX: Well, because I think we’ll move away from the sort of the negative aspects, for example, not including consequences to violent behavior. Well, we shouldn’t have that, and now we’re, we’re learning the negative ways of portraying violence and the positive ways of portraying violence, and I think we, we–there’s no reason why we can’t take advantage of that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Mr. Kunkel, in a word, do you expect change in the industry?

MR. KUNKEL: One of the things that we’ve done is to underscore ways in which violence can be shown in an anti-violence fashion, and I’m hoping that one of the byproducts of this will be that that’ll be embraced by the creative community. We know that violence is prevalent on TV. Let’s see if we can do it in a more responsible fashion.

JEFFREY KAYE: We’ll leave it on that hopeful note. Thank you very much.