Previewed at the National Association of Television Program Executives
Annual Conference, Miami Beach, January 27, 1994 by George Gerbner, The
Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
The latest Television Violence Profile (16th in the series), to be released
February, 1994, goes beyond the usual tracking of trends in violence.
Supported, in part, by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, an agency
of the U.S. Public Health Service, it also explores the dynamics, causes and
consequences of violent programming, and proposes grass-roots citizen
organization and action to address the problem.
The Violence Profile is part of the Cultural Indicators project based
at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for
Communication. Cultural Indicators is a database and an ongoing
research project that relates recurrent features of the world of
television to viewer conceptions of reality. Its cumulative computer
archive contains observations on 2,816 programs and 34,882 characters
coded according to many thematic, demographic and action categories.
The study is directed by George Gerbner at Penn in collaboration with
Michael Morgan at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Nancy
Signorielli at the University of Delaware.
This is a preview of some highlights from the report.
Casting and fate
Violence is a social relationship and demonstraction of power. It
shows who can get away with what against whom in a conflict. The
formulas driving violence affect the total tone and context of
programming. Women play one out of three characters in prime time, one
out of four in Saturday morning children's programs, and one out of
five in the news. With a predominantly male cast, and given the
typical action scenario, the stage is set for stories of power,
conflict, violence. The study also found that most of those who are
underrepresented are also those who, when portrayed, suffer the worst
A "pecking order" of relative risks of victimization as the price
committing violence found women, children, young people, lower class,
disabled and Asian Americans at the bottom. When it comes to killing or
being killed, older and Hispanic as well as the other minority groups pay a
higher-than-average price. That is to say that hurting and killing by most
majority groups extracts roughly a tooth for a tooth, or less. But minority
groups tend to suffer greater symbolic reprisals for committing violence.
The Mean World Syndrome
The analysis of large national probability surveys indicates that long-term
regular exposure to television tends to make an independent contribution to
the feeling of living in a mean and gloomy world. The "lessons" range from
aggression to desensitization and to a sense of vulnerability and dependence.
Heavy viewers are more likely than comparable groups of light viewers
to overestimate one's chances of involvement in violence; to believe
that one's neighborhood is unsafe; to state that fear of crime is a
very serious personal problem; and to assume that crime is rising,
regardless of the facts of the case. Heavier viewers in every
subgroup (defined by education, age, income, gender, newspaper
reading, neighborhood, etc.) express a greater sense of insecurity and
mistrust than do light viewers in the same groups. Other results show
that heavy viewers are also more likely to have bought new locks,
watchdogs, and guns "for protection." Finally, viewers who see members
of their own group have a higher calculus of risk than those of other
groups develop feel the most vulnerable and dependent.
This unequal sense of danger, vulnerability and general unease,
combined with reduced sensitivity, invites not only aggression but
also exploitation and repression. That is the deeper problem of
violence- laden television.
Is this what the viewers want?
Violence is a legitimate journalistic and artistic feature. But television
violence is an overkill of "happy violence" -- swift, cool, effective, without
tragic consequences and in other ways divorced from real life and crime
statistics. "Happy violence" is the byproduct of a manufacturing and
marketing process that defies popular taste and imposes uniformity on
creative people and viewers.
There is no evidence that, other factors being equal, violence per se
is giving most viewers "what they want." The most highly rated
programs are usually not violent. A test of the relationship between
violence and ratings refutes the standard rationalization for violent
The study compared the average Nielson ratings of two samples of over 100
programs each to test the popularity of the violence formula. The samples
were drawn from the Cultural Indicators Data Archive for the past five
seasons. In one sample all programs have high levels of violence; in the
other sample no programs contain violence. Average Nielsen ratings and
shares for the two samples were then compared.
The Table below gives the results. It shows that violence per se consistently
receives lower ratings.
COMPARISON OF NIELSEN RATINGS OF VIOLENT AND NON-
VIOLENT NETWORK PRIME-
TIME DRAMATIC PROGRAMS AIRED 1988-93
Violent programs Non-violent programs
Years aired Rating Share Rating Share
1988-89 12.8 21 14.5 24
1989-90 12.0 20 14.8 24
1990-91* 8.4 17 10.5 21
1991-92 11.3 19 14.8 23
1992-93 10.0 16 13.0 20
Overall means 11.1 18.9 13.8 22.5
* Summer sample (June '91)
Source: Cultural Indicators Data Archive and A.C. Nielsen
The overall average rating of the violent sample is 11.1; the same for the
violent sample is 13.8. The share of the violent and nonviolent samples is
18.9 and 22.5, respectively. Furthermore, the non-violent sample was more
highly rated than the violent sample for each of the four seasons.
The evidence also shows that most people suffer the violence inflicted on
them with diminishing tolerance. A March 1985 Harris survey showed that
78 percent disapprove of violence they see on television. A Gallup poll of
October 1990 found 79 percent in favor of "regulating" objectionable content
in television. A Times-Mirror national poll in 1993 showed that Americans
who said they were "personally bothered" by violence in entertainment
shows jumped to 59 percent from 44 percent in 1983. Furthermore, 80 percent
said entertainment violence was "harmful" to society, compared with 64
percent in 1983, and almost twice as many people - 58 percent compared with
31 percent - said entertainment violence bothered them more than news
Local broadcasters, legally responsible for what goes on the air, also
oppose the overkill and complain about loss of control. The trade
paper Electronic Media reported in August, 1993, the results of its
own survey of 100 general managers across all regions and in all
market sizes. Three out of four said there is too much needless
violence on television; 5 7 percent would like to have "more input on
program content decisions."
What drives "happy violence?"
Why, then, does a public relations-conscious and politically sophisticated
industry persist in risking domestic backlash and international
embarrassment for its perennially violent fare? The answer is that violence
"travels well" on the global market. Rapid concentration, conglomeratization,
and globalization in the media industry bring streamlining of production,
economies of scale, and emphasis on dramatic ingredients most suitable for
aggressive international promotion.
Most program producers barely break even on the domestic market. They
are forced onto the world market and into all forms of syndication,
including cable and video sales, to make a profit. Soon production and
distribution will merge, reversing prior antitrust measures in
communications and moving toward total control of the world market by
a handful of conglomerates. That is the real meaning of the Paramount
merger. Global marketing needs a dramatic ingredient that requires no
translation, "speaks" action in any language, and fits into a
conventional pattern in many cultures. That ingredient is violence.
(Graphic sex is second, but, ironically, that runs into more
inhibitions and restrictions than violence.)
Syndicators demand "action" (the code word for violence) because
"travels well around the world," said the producer of "Die Hard 2"
(which killed 264 compared to 18 in "Die Hard 1," produced in 1988).
"Everyone understands an action movie. If I tell a joke, you may not
get it but if a bullet goes through the window, we all know how to hit
the floor, no matter the language."
Bruce Gordon, President of Paramount International TV Group, explained
that "The international demand rarely changes....Action- adventure
series and movies continue to be the genre in demand, primarily
because those projects lose less in translation to other languages...
Comedy series are never easy because in most of the world most of the
comedies have to be dubbed and wind up losing their humor in the
An analysis of international data in the Cultural Indicators database
compared a sample of 250 U.S. programs exported to 10 countries with 111
programs shown in the U.S. only during the same year. Violence was the
main theme of 40 percent of home-shown and 49 percent of exported
programs. Crime/action series comprised 17 percent of home- shown and 46
percent of exported programs. What violent programs lose on ratings, they
more than make up by grabbing the attention of younger viewers whom
advertisers want to reach and by extending their reach globally.
The liberating alternative
Far from reflecting creative freedom, the global strategy wastes
talent, chills originality, and fails to serve the tastes and needs of
any country. The Hollywood Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors,
speaking for the creative community, said in a statement issued on the
eve of the August 1993 "summit" conference on television violence: "We
stand today at a point in time when the country's dissatisfaction with
the quality of television is at an all-time high, while our own
feelings of helplessness and lack of power, in not only choosing
material that seeks to enrich, but also in our ability to execute to
the best of our ability, is at an all-time low."
Industry ferment and public disaffection prompted the Los Angeles
"summit." The threat of restrictive action was uppermost on the minds of
most participants as Senator Paul Simon warned of the legislative backlash
There is an alternative. It is not the "electronic superhighway,"
rhetoric about education and access. Given the convergence of
communication technologies, the concentration of ownership, and the
shrinking of independent creative opportunities, the notion that the new
convergence will provide more jobs and greater choice is a technocratic
fantasy. The same (or fewer) programs now being mass-produced for the
largest possible markets will run on more channels more of the time, while
informercial hustle, direct marketing, gambling, and videogames (billed as
interactive multimedia democracy) will fill the rest. Cross- media synergy and
the global consolidation of electronic marketing is more likely to reduce than
to increase the creation of new cultural resources unless provision is made to
loosen the noose of global formulas from around the necks of creative people.
More freedom, not more censorship, is the effective and acceptable way to
increase diversity and reduce television violence to its legitimate role and
proportion. The role of Congress, if any, is to turn its anti-trust and civil
rights oversight on the centralized and globalized industrial structures and
marketing strategies that impose violence on creative people and foist it on
the children of the world. The role of citizens is to offer a liberating
alternative to the repressive movements and proposals in the field.
That liberating alternative exists in the Cultural Environment
Movement. CEM is a non-profit educational corporation, a new
coalition of media, professional, labor, religious, health-related,
women's and minority groups opposed to private corporate as well as
government censorship. CEM is working for freedom from stereotyped
formulas; for investing in a freer and more diverse cultural
environment; and for citizen participation in cultural decisions that
shape our lives and the lives of our children. It can be reached by
writing to Cultural Environment Movement, P.O. Box 31847,
Philadelphia, PA 19104