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Does T.V. Kill?

Original Air Date: January 10, 1995
Produced and Directed by Michael McLeod
Correspondent Al Austin


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: By the time a child leaves elementary school, she's witnessed 8,000 murders.

1st TELEVISION PROGRAM: I'll give you something to screech about!

2nd TELEVISION PROGRAM: Don't shoot me!

3rd TELEVISION PROGRAM: He shot my dad!

4th TELEVISION PROGRAM: Stay there or I'll shoot.

5th TELEVISION PROGRAM: I don't think so.

4th TELEVISION PROGRAM: Think again.

6th TELEVISION PROGRAM: Killers on the loose in Alaska-- when we come back.

ANNOUNCER: What are we doing to our children? Tonight on FRONTLINE, "Does T.V. Kill?"

BILL MOYERS: Good evening. I'm Bill Moyers. This week public television is tackling the challenge of youth violence in American life. We're exploring the causes and searching for solutions to this frightening epidemic. Tonight FRONTLINE focuses on a question crucial to the issue: What role do the violent images on our television screens play in causing real violence on our streets?

FRONTLINE correspondent Al Austin will take us on a skeptical and surprising journey, first through the dense jungle of scientific studies that link television and violence and then into the living rooms in one American town to watch the way we really watch television.

And then I'll return for a discussion with three opinionated students of this issue who offer some practical advice about what we can do about television.

Tonight's program was produced by Michael McLeod and Oregon Public Broadcasting. It asks the question, "Does T.V. Kill?"

AL AUSTIN: This is where the headless horseman rode and Rip Van Winkle slept-- Columbia County in the Catskills, Hudson, New York, an old town with deep wrinkles, uncomfortable with the changes it sees all around.

FRONTLINE came to Hudson because this is where television was born and it was among the people here, more than anywhere else in the world, that experts have worked to learn what television does to us and here that they first found a connection between television and violence.

We rented a house on the bank of the Hudson and spent several months trying to see for ourselves what television does. It's discouraging to those of us who make a living in television to hear what people think it's doing. Whatever's wrong in America, someone -- lots of someones -- will say television caused it, or at least helped. One man even told a jury he killed two people because T.V. made him do it. The jury found him guilty anyway, but some people think he had a point.

To hear some experts talk, you'd think an appliance from hell had somehow gotten into everyone's home and every day, every night was feeding us another dose of something evil, feeding us seeds of violence.

One researcher calculated that before the average American child leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed more than 8,000 murders on television and some social scientists argue that this steady diet of imaginary violence has helped America become the world leader in real crime and violence and they say they can prove it.

Do they really have proof of that? Is television really killing people? Is it corrupting the world or only reflecting it, entertaining it? Maybe it's only doing what story tellers have done through the ages, telling our children scary stories as a means of helping them explore the darkness.

But there is something different about television. More than three decades ago, a study in Hudson had produced the first statistics, the first apparent proof that if a child sees enough violence on television, it may show up in his behavior and stay with him the rest of his life. The scientist who conducted that pioneering study was Leonard Eron. He came to this Hudson school, Edwards Elementary, and to every other elementary school in the county, looking for the causes of aggression. Columbia County offered him a representative slice of America. In 1960 he studied a