Sen. Bob Dole called on the entertainment industry this week to clean up its act to "help our nation maintain the innocence of our children." He isn't the first to chastise Hollywood for producing movies, TV programming and music promoting "loveless" sex and graphic violence. A growing number of politicians and parents believe it's time industry leaders curtail wanton eroticism and bloodshed. Dole, the Senate majority leader, accused film and music executives of hiding behind "the lofty language of free speech in order to profit from the debasing of America." He continued: "The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end, but it will only stop when the leaders of the entertainment industry recognise and shoulder their responsibility."
Since the issue has been forcefully moved onto the national agenda, politicians of all persuasions have taken pot-shots at Hollywood. In his State of the Union address President Clinton drew a standing ovation from the assembled members of Congress when he criticised the "incessant, repetitive, mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeates our media all the time." At the request of Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, the Citizens Task Force on TV Violence, which includes 28 national organisations representing medical professionals, parents, educators and law enforcement officials, submitted seven recommendations to the administration to reduce media violence. She assured the group that "regulation of violence is constitutionally permissible." During her tenure, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders called for a national summit to end violence in TV programming. She told the House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee that "by portraying violence as the normal means of conflict resolution the media gives youth the message that violence is socially acceptable, 'cool' and the best way to resolve problems."
"The average child, ages 2 to 11, watches 28 hours of TV each week . . .," said Elders. By high school graduation, a student has spent 15,000 hours watching television to 11,000 in the classroom, and has witnessed 250,000 acts of violence on TV and in movies. "The tragedy about Saturday morning cartoons," she said, is that "there are 20 to 30 acts of violence per hour." Indeed, more than 1,000 studies since 1955 have linked media violence and aggressive behaviour. Despite increasing concern about its effect on children, however, the number of violent incidents continue to rise. A study by the Centre for Media and Public Affairs chronicled all the violent acts in a day's broadcasting in April 1994 on the four major networks, PBS and the four biggest cable networks. It found that compared to the same study conducted in 1992, the number of violent scenes jumped 41 percent, which translates to 15 violent scenes per channel each hour.
A national survey conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that 55 percent of those polled want the federal government to regulate how much sex and violence appears on television. That same poll found that 84 percent of parents with children living at home feel they must act as "gate keepers" over what their offspring are allowed to watch. Even as they debate the issue, Americans acknowledge they are being desensitised by media violence. Fully 78 percent of Americans think "television shows so much violence that people grow up not being shocked by it," according to a study by the Times Mirror Centre for People and the Press.
Television industry leaders have initiated self-regulatory assessments of the sex and violence content of their programming. Critics, however, argue that by promising to deliver less promiscuity, blood and gore in TV programming and by airing news advisories about programs unsuitable for children, Hollywood merely seeks to forestall action by Congress. The counter-response from the industry is to trot out coalitions denouncing legislative threats as "steps toward government censorship which would infringe upon the First Amendment's right of free speech." Congress may not have the will or the authority to try and balance the government's interest in protecting children against the interest of adults in viewing violent programs. Perhaps it all boils down to this: For children, less TV and less exposure to violence are better. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that paediatricians advise parents to limit their children's television viewing to one to two hours per day. While waiting for corrective measures from Congress and the industry, parents still have an obligation to provide alternatives to the electronic baby-sitter. When all else fails, pull the plug.