Dossier D.C.: Advertising Violence

Should the current TV-ratings system cover commercials?
many americans rail against tv programming. But fortunately for the broadcasting industry, most people just sit in front of the box and smugly practice witty, rhetorical comments. If we get really steamed, we compose an imaginary letter during the commercials.
But Dr. Charles Anderson, a family practitioner in Minneapolis, practices what he preaches. He parlayed his anger at violence in television ads into a one-man study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month-and captured the attention of a U.S. senator.
Anderson’s activism began in 1995, when he was watching the World Series playoffs with his sons. He sat on the couch with his two eldest boys, who were 8 and 6. As Anderson remembers it, an ad came on for Homicide: Life on the Streets. “It was one of those violent ads with burnt corpses,” Anderson recalls. His sons had little or no overt reaction to the spot. “It wasn’t a traumatic moment for my family,” he admits, “but for me it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The level of violence was absurd.”
Anderson called the general manager of his local NBC affiliate to complain about the violent depictions during what he believed was a family-viewing time. The general manager promised to pass his comments on to the network.
“At that point, I decided the only way I could get anywhere was to try and do some objective research on the subject,” he recalls. He searched all relevant literature and didn’t find much-except that the typical child watches more than 350 TV ads a week. There is ample, albeit contradictory research on TV violence; Anderson is one of the first to do a quantitative study on ad violence.
Anderson’s definition of violence comes from The National Television Violence Study. This 1996 report analyzed nearly 3,000 programs, but violent commercials were not mentioned in the study.
In fact, the new TV-ratings system covers programming content only. There is no ratings system for ads-and broadcast standards vary from network to network.
During the 1996 playoffs, for example, Anderson recorded 15 games and found that 104 of the 1,528 commercials, or 6.8 percent, contained violent content during a time period traditionally thought to be family-oriented. His study came to the conclusion that “overt violent content in commercials during the 1996 major league playoffs was common and consisted mainly of promotions for TV programs and big-screen movies.
“It is counterintuitive to find such commercials in nonviolent programming and makes it difficult for parents to avoid exposing their children to this form of violence,” the study noted.
Of the 104 violent commercials, 69 contained at least one violent act, defined as “any overt depiction of the use of physical force or the credible threat of such force intended to harm a being or group of beings,” and 90 contained at least one violent threat.
Moreover, 70 percent of the ads were promotions for TV programs, 7 percent were cable-TV program ads and 20 percent were big-screen movie promotions, according to the study. For instance, on Fox, 40 of its 61 violent ads were for The X-Files and Millennium.
What is this homegrown crusader’s goal? “I’d like major league baseball to say, ‘We don’t want our product presented this way.’ Second, I’d like broadcasters to not run ads during the games. My third choice is for legislators to say this isn’t right. I think there should be rights and protections for children,” he says.
Anderson’s study landed on the desk of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., co-author of a bill now languishing in the Senate which was designed to permit broadcasters to devise a self-regulating code of conduct that would deal with controversial issues, such as violent ads.
The act has been on the shelf ever since Congress entered into an agreement with the broadcast community not to legislate TV programming, provided it honors the TV-ratings system.
A few weeks ago, Lieberman used Anderson’s TV study as a springboard to write a strongly worded letter. He reminded the National Association of Broadcasters and the advertising community of his position on the state of TV programming and advertising.
“Sen. Lieberman doesn’t want the government to be restricting what is and is not on TV,” says Dan Gerstein, the senator’s legislative aide. “But he does want to protect children. The letter was an attempt to reiterate that message.”
Dennis Wharton, a representative of the NAB, says his organization would not comment on the senator’s letter. The NAB has been down the “code of conduct” road before, and it became mired in years of litigation. The code, which was in effect from the late ’60s through the early ’70s, banned three products or services from the air: hard liquor, contraceptives and the occult. It also maintained a family-viewing-hour policy, which was challenged in1975 by writers such as Norman Lear, co-creator of All in the Family.
“The lawsuit was brought by program producers, actors and writers who felt the family-viewing code hindered the prospect of getting their shows in certain time slots,” explains Wharton. “The federal courts upheld the challenge to family viewing. The judge even went so far as to say the Federal Communications Commission was “jawboning the industry.” The upshot? Not only did the NAB lose its case, but it created a domino effect of challenges to the code-as well as more legal entanglements on First Amendment and antitrust grounds.
The family-viewing hour has since gone the way of recipes made with Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup. Anderson purposefully chose the World Series as the forum for his study rather than a typical 7-9 p.m. time block because he believes it is one of the few family respites left on television.
Family-viewing fare may seem like common sense to a parent or an obvious conclusion to a social scientist, but it is a political morass for the broadcast industry.
For its part, the NAB refuses to try and resurrect a code of conduct. So what does Anderson hope his modest study will achieve? “Very simply, I hope broadcasters will do the right thing. Ideally, I’d like them to do it themselves, without government intervention. I’m not some ultraconservative zealot,” he insists, speaking from the Family Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he practices medicine and teaches residents. “The X-Files is my wife’s favorite show. But we watch it after our kids go to bed.”
News and Notes
Expect the alcohol advertising inquiry to reappear now that the FCC has a new look-the chairman and the commissioners were sworn in and announced their staffs last week. Chairman William Kennard says he thinks alcohol ads are within the purview of his agency, as has new commissioner Gloria Tristani. Commissioner Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell, was more oblique about alcohol ads during his hearings. It remains to be seen whether he’s inherited an activist spirit. Thus far, it looks as if former chairman Reed Hundt’s legacy lives on. In a related matter, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., head of the Telecommunications Committee, says alcohol ads are not part of his mandate.