TV execs make case for, and against, screen violence
Posted January 15, 2013
PASADENA, Calif. - Does TV violence share blame for the series of recent shooting tragedies?
The medium's role is on the minds of critics gathered here for a semi-annual meeting. And as President Obama prepares to unveil a comprehensive gun-safety plan Wednesday after Vice President Biden's meetings with entertainment executives as part of his task force on gun violence, TV executives pointed the finger elsewhere.
"We all like a scapegoat. We all like a simple answer. We want to put the finger on one thing and say, 'That's the problem. That's the issue,' " says Fox chairman Kevin Reilly.
Says NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt: "I'm not a psychologist, but I'm not sure you can make the leap that a show about serial killers has caused the problems in our country. Many other problems have happened, from mental illness to guns."
FX chief John Landgraf, who is behind such shows as Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story, says "first-person shooter" video games, in which viewers aren't watching a character but acting as one and "killing everything in sight," are a bigger problem. "But as an industry, we should study it more, and I think if we can find meaningful correlations, we should act upon those correlations."
Crime shows top the Nielsen charts; nearly every drama on top-rated CBS involves crimes or killing. "Clearly, there's an appetite," Reilly says. "We can look at the success not only on television, but at the box office. That is the business that we're in, of providing things that people like."
But even some stars who make a living from them are queasy: Mandy Patinkin told New York magazine in September that he regretted doing CBS' Criminal Minds and quit the show after two seasons in 2007: "I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality." He said he's concerned about the effect of TV violence: "Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn't what you need to be dreaming about."
CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler defended what she called the "much-maligned" show and others on her schedule. "At the end of the day, justice is served, the good guys prevail and the bad guy goes to jail. That is the paradigm of our shows, the mini-morality tale that plays out every week."
Similarly, Reilly backed The Following, a much-anticipated drama due Jan. 21 that stars Kevin Bacon as an ex-FBI agent tracking a cult of serial killers. "It's a cop chasing a bad guy; I'm not glorifying killers."
Series creator Kevin Williamson says that "we're all traumatized" by the Newtown school shootings and added that the 1999 Columbine killings partly inspired him to delve into the minds of fictional killers. "I know what happens in the real world affects me," he says, and "it sort of finds its way into what I do."
Reilly says edgier shows such as The Walking Dead on cable TV - which is not subject to FCC content regulations - forces broadcasters to up the ante.
"That doesn't mean every show we put on should start chasing the standards of cable," he says. "But we must match the intensity. Otherwise, we're going to be a pale comparison, and we're not going to entertain the audience."
"We see so much violence, we see so much killing" on TV "that desensitizes us, and in a sense, dehumanizes us," says Robert Simmermon, a psychologist who also specializes in media. "It's hard to put your finger on a particular show," but "there's a lot of bloody, gory detailed stuff" on television, and that "desensitizes us, and in a sense dehumanizes us."
Criminals toting AK-47s are "the equivalent of old cowboys," Simmermon says. "And that's dangerous. It appeals to a very primitive part of us, but at some point I think civility is withering away. It's kind of frightening."
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