Congress Is Screaming Bloody Murder

Michael Neavill thought little of it when he bought commercial time in Murder in the Heartland, a television movie that aired on ABC in May. As broadcast director of American Telephone & Telegraph Co., Neavill buys spots for AT&T in 25 to 30 shows a day, every day. Murder in the Heartland, he felt, was a gripping drama about mass murderer Charles Starkweather.

Two months later, in July, AT&T's name came up at a congressional hearing as a company that helps promote violence on TV. And Neavill later discovered that even some of his colleagues thought the film was an inappropriate choice. Now, AT&T is tightening its standards for advertising on violent programs. But first, it must determine when and where violence crosses the line. "There's a lot of room for interpretation," says Neavill.

No kidding. As advertisers and television networks firm up their fall seasons, they are grappling with a mushrooming congressional outcry against TV violence. Industry experts attribute the clamor to a coalescence of trends: a recent spate of grisly TV movies such as Murder in the Heartland, fresh publicity about teenage violence, and a growing acceptance of research that says TV's "glamorized" violence can lead to the uglier variety on the nation's streets and in its schools. "The mood is that we have to do something," says Senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.), a leading critic of TV violence.

The networks and their sponsors want to act before Congress does. But the clampdown is giving them a headache: Sponsors worry that they may be stigmatized if they advertise on programs with less than snow-white ratings. And media executives say Congress has unfairly singled out the four major broadcast networks, instead of cable and syndicated TV, where much of the truly violent programming now airs.

BLUE CHEESE. Senator Simon turned up the heat on Aug. 2 in remarks to a conference of entertainment executives in Beverly Hills. He warned them that if Hollywood doesn't show it is committed to stemming television violence within 60 days, it may face tough congressional legislation. Simon wants the industry to organize a council, with members of its own choosing, to set standards on violence and monitor network compliance.

Even before Simon's threat, ABC, CBS, and NBC were running scared. The three had already toned down their programs. In June, after congressional hearings, they agreedto place parental advisories on violent programs starting in September. In addition, ABC has set up an 800 number to offer information about violent shows.

Sponsors say they support such warnings--so long as they have the freedom to make their own judgments about programs. "We cannot let the networks override our own screening procedures," says Philip Guarascio, general manager of marketing at General Motors Corp. But Guarascio admits that, given the controversy, GM would think twice before appearing in such a show. Indeed, media buyers say advertisers are balking at NYPD Blue, a new police drama on ABC that will carry a warning for tough language and partial nudity.

With their big audiences and a few provocative shows such as NYPD Blue, the broadcast networks have become an easy target for Congress. But even some activists point out that many of the extremely violent programs no longer air on ABC or its rivals. "The major problem is with independent stations and cable," says Leonard Eron, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and vocal critic.

In the upcoming network season, for example, comedies will take up 29% of the total schedule, one hour more than last year. By contrast, reality programs, which rate high for violence (table, page 30), will drop from 9 1/2 to 5 hours per week. Action shows are on the wane, too, because they are costlier and get lower ratings than sitcoms. Many have migrated to cable, where mass audiences are not so crucial, or into syndication, where studios can cut better deals. Violent made-for-TV movies, however, are still thriving. Flicks such as Murder in the Heartland and NBC's recent Cruel Doubt are cheaper to make than feature films and get reliable ratings.

Hollywood's chief lobbyist, Jack Valenti, insists the TV industry has gotten the message about violence. Over the next six months, he plans to meet with producers, directors, and screenwriters to discuss "how you retain dramatic narrative and at the same time reduce violence." But given the mixed feelings of sponsors and the many new places violence turns up on TV, few think Valenti can resolve this issue anytime soon.

      Some programs and their violence quotient:
      Program                    Violent acts  Rating**
      (Network)                    per hour*
      TOP COPS (CBS)                    38      10.7
      FBI: THE UNTOLD STORIES (ABC)     28       9.5
      AMERICA'S MOST WANTED (FOX)       20       7.1
      IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (CBS)    13      12.3
      UNSOLVED MYSTERIES (NBC)          10      14.6
      COPS (FOX)                         9       8.7
      *From the National Coalition on Television
      Violence (Sep.-Nov. 1992)
      **Each point equals 930,000 TV households
      (Sep.-Dec. 1992)  DATA: NCTV, A.C. NIELSEN CO.
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