joanna weiss

Partnering up to battle TV violence

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco celebrated as his team won the Super Bowl.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco celebrated as his team won the Super Bowl.

You can always count on controversy from a Super Bowl broadcast, and while Beyonce’s clothes stayed in place on Sunday night, the show didn’t disappoint. We just had to wait until the end, after the Ravens won, when the cameras caught quarterback Joe Flacco running onto the field and saying a bad word. (In his defense, winning the Super Bowl probably does feel bleeping awesome.)

The Parents Television Council was swiftly on the case, urging retribution against CBS. The group was living up to its reputation. Founded by conservative activist Brent Bozell, the group is best known for flooding the FCC with indecency complaints, fueling the Janet Jackson wardrobe-malfunction controversy at a Super Bowl many moons ago.

This current flap seems tailor-made for the culture wars, too. But really, it’s a sign that the PTC is overdue for some high-profile partnerships. With its ability to make headlines and marshal a grass-roots base, the group might well be the public’s best hope for curbing violence on TV.


Yes, media violence is the diversionary tactic of choice for the NRA: Don’t bother tightening gun laws, just look at those video games over there! But TV violence is actually a broad, bipartisan complaint, cited by liberals with aversions to guns, Democratic leaders such as West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, and public health advocates who say our gun fetish desensitizes everyone to violence.

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On this, too, the PTC is on the case. In the wake of Newtown, the group has repeatedly urged its members to write to Vice President Joe Biden and ask him to pressure the FCC over violent TV.

The PTC has specific complaints: a recent torture scene in ABC’s “Scandal,” the violent-serial-killer premise of Fox’s “The Following.” But it also wants the agency to revisit a report from 2007, which reviewed ample research over kids’ exposure to violence and concluded that the FCC should regulate TV violence the way it currently oversees sex, language, and commercials during children’s programming.

The FCC adopted the report, and then . . . nothing. FCC officials say Congress merely asked for the report, so once it was signed, case closed. Congress has, presumably, been busy with things like debt ceilings. And crafting regulations would be tricky, and not just because of the First Amendment. The report acknowledges that, strictly speaking, there are more acts of violence in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” than in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

But the report suggests it’s possible to craft a narrow, constitutional definition of “excessively violent programming,” having to do with realism, types of weapons, or levels of gore. It also suggests a simpler, logical solution: rules about what sorts of violent content can air at different times of day.


In fact, all of this could be accomplished without government action — just a rare demonstration of good taste on the part of TV programmers. But the TV industry has never been very good at self-policing. In congressional hearings after the Columbine massacre, entertainment executives pledged to change, said Melissa Henson, the PTC’s director of communications and public education. But before long, TV violence was back, fueled by advanced computer graphics and broadcast TV’s efforts to keep up with boundary-busting cable fare.

“Not only was it more frequent, but it was more graphic, more explicit, more gory,” Henson said.

Then and now, the industry claimed that parents, with good tools, should make their own viewing decisions. In theory, that’s a great idea. Parents have more control over their TV sets than ever, between the barely used V-chip, the ratings system, and the miracles of the DVR and video on demand. Yet the TV industry manages to thwart them at every turn, airing gun-soaked commercials during family shows — how many violent ads did you see during the football playoffs? — and scary promos in the background of cable video-on-demand menus.

Public pressure seems to be the only solution, and that’s where the PTC’s proven army of complainers could help. If an amped-up Congress, overrun by popular opinion, looks to be roused into action, maybe the networks would be moved to regulate themselves.

So can the PTC join forces with left-leaning public health groups, and vice versa? This seems as good a moment as any for strange bedfellows. And it wouldn’t be a bad move for the PTC. TV violence is a far more worthwhile target than the occasional quarterback’s
f-bomb. Besides, it never hurts to have new friends.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter