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TESTIMONY BEFORE THE UNITED STATES SENATE COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE AND TRANSPORTATION

 

by TIMOTHY F. WINTER

President, Parents Television Council

June 26, 2007


Good day Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice-Chairman and Senators. Thank you for inviting me to be here with you this morning to discuss this important subject. And may I begin Mr. Chairman and Mr. Vice-Chairman, by saying what a personal honor it is for me to appear before this Committee, on whose staff I had the pleasure to serve under your good friend and former colleague, Warren Magnuson.

 

My name is Tim Winter and I am President of the Parents Television Council. With almost 1.2 million members across the United States, the PTC is a non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots organization dedicated to protecting children and families from graphic sex, violence and profanity in entertainment.

 

Many in the Congress know of the PTC mostly as a vocal advocacy group, but the lion’s share of our effort goes into research and education. The PTC staff monitors every hour of primetime broadcast entertainment programming and a growing amount of original programming on basic cable. PTC media analysts enter into a powerful computer database every instance of sex, violence, profanity, disrespect for authority, and other program content that parents might find harmful to their children; and we make that information available free of charge on our website so that parents and families can make more informed media choices.

 

So in the course of our work, Mr. Chairman, we at the PTC see pretty much everything. And when it comes to violence on television, the trend of what we are seeing today is not only concerning, it is frightening. In fact none of us would even be here today but for a level of media violence that approaches epidemic proportions.

 

This past January the PTC released Dying to Entertain – our latest Special Report analyzing the volume and degree of violence on primetime television. The television season which concluded last year was the most violent that the PTC has ever recorded – averaging 4.41 instances of violence per hour during prime time, or one instance every 13˝ minutes – an increase of 75% since the 1998 television season.  Over the course of a year, that means many thousands of violent depictions are broadcast over the public airwaves at times when millions of children are in the audience.

 

Between 1998 and 2006, violence increased in every time slot, including the so-called Family Hour of 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central Time. Last year nearly half (49%) of all episodes which aired during the study period contained at least one instance of violence. 56% was person-on-person violence.  And 54% of violent scenes contained either a depiction of death or an implied death.

 

In addition to the marked increase in the quantity of violence, we are seeing several other disturbing trends. First, the depictions of violence have become far more graphic and more realistic than ever before, thanks in part to enhanced computer graphics and special effects employed in television production today. Second, there is an alarming trend for violent scenes to include a sexual element.  Rapists, sexual predators and fetishists appear with increasing frequency on prime time programs. Third, we are now seeing the protagonist – the person the audience is supposed to identify with – as the perpetrator of the most violent acts. And lastly we are seeing more children being depicted as the victims of violence.

 

Mr. Chairman, violence has played an important role in dramatic story-telling for thousands of years. But the state of television violence is nothing like it has ever been before. As former FCC Chairman Newt Minow recently noted, “forty years ago I said television was a vast wasteland; now it is a toxic dump.”

 

Even TV critics who generally praise shows that “push the envelope” were aghast at how grisly the TV networks’ 2005-2006 season offerings were.  The Washington Post suggested that the season was “dominated by a new brood of a relatively new breed:  shows that are horrific on purpose, with gore as graphic and grisly as in many a monstrous movie.”  Rolling Stone said “Welcome to prime-time-network and basic-cable television, where a bumper crop of bloodthirsty police procedurals and high-concept thrillers is making for perhaps the most violent, sadistic TV season ever.”  The Associated Press said, “The body count in prime-time television these days rivals that of a war zone…[making] network TV home to an astonishing amount of blood ‘n’ guts.”

 

We as a nation have been talking about the problem of TV violence for a long time, and the industry has been providing excuses for the same duration. The House of Representatives held hearings more than 50 years ago to explore the impact of television violence and concluded that the “television broadcast industry was a perpetrator and deliverer of violence.”  In 1972 the Surgeon General’s office conducted an overview of existing studies on television violence and concluded that it was a “contributing factor to increases in violent crime and antisocial behavior.”  That was in 1972. As I will now illustrate, the manner in which violence is depicted today has changed drastically since 1972.

 

We have prepared for your staff members a DVD with a sampling of scenes containing violence from recent television programs. Let me describe to you a few highlights or, more appropriately, a few low-lights:

 

WARNING: The program description and video below contain explicit content.  Our intent is not to offend readers, but to offer an accurate description of the program.

 

WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT

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Copyright © CBS, FX
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Clip courtesy of the Parents Television Council's TV Show Archive (learn more)
www.parentstv.org

 

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During the May 22nd episode of NCIS that aired during the so-called "family hour" of 8 p.m. Eastern time (7p.m. CT/MT), a drug smuggler dies when the packets in his stomach containing the drugs release deadly amounts into his system. The drug dealer, who was waiting for the delivery, and the smuggler's sister, a desperate junkie, go to the hospital and attempt to retrieve the drugs from the smuggler's body.

The scene shows the dead smuggler having his midsection sliced open and his blood-soaked organs pulled out of his body. The man's digestive tract is sliced open and white powder spills over his bloodied torso. When a fight ensues, one character stabs the drug dealer with a scalpel and another character shoots the drug dealer. Then the junkie-sister is shown with her face buried in her brother's bloody intestines as she snorts heroin off his dead body. This episode was rated TV-14, with no V content descriptor indicating violence.

 

On an episode of C.S.I. – which normally airs at 9:00 (8:00 Central and Mountain times) and is often repeated at 8:00 ET/PT – a young man is murdered inside a mental institution.  Investigators discover that the killer was one of the nurses in the mental ward and mother to one of the inmates.  It turns out that the woman had been having sex with her son for many years.  The boy became a psychotic serial rapist and was institutionalized. The woman continued to send her son love letters while he was institutionalized and eventually took a job as a nurse at the institution so that she could continue to have sex with him.  When she learned that her son was having sex with one of the male inmates, she killed her rival by smothering him with a pillow, then had her son cover up her crime by bashing the dead man’s head into the ground until it became a bloody, unrecognizable mess.  Another inmate comes along, rubs his hands in the blood, and hungrily smears it all over his face as if he wants to devour it.  The episode actually began with this horrific scene of brutality and gore – so any parent watching TV with their children who wasn’t fast enough changing the channel, would have been subjected to this disturbing content. Because this program airs before 10 p.m., as many as 2 million children are in the viewing audience on any given week, according to Nielsen.

 

A program called The Shield began on the advertiser-supported, expanded-basic cable network FX, and now the program airs on broadcast stations nationwide in syndication. This program has featured some of the most graphic violence and – in particular – graphic sexual violence ever seen on television – including premium subscription networks like HBO.  In one episode, Vic Mackey – the series’ anti-hero, a corrupt cop – becomes enraged when he learns that Armadillo, a Mexican gang leader, burned one of his informants to death by “necklacing” him – placing tires around him so that he is immobilized, then dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire.  Vic brutally beats Armadillo, repeatedly kicking him and hitting him in the face with a heavy book as blood spatters on Vic’s shirt and face.  Vic drags Armadillo into the kitchen and turns on an electric stove burner, then pushes Armadillo’s face into the red-hot coils of the burner.  He pulls Armadillo’s head back so that TV audience can see the melting and charred flesh on his face.  When Vic’s men finally pull him off, Armadillo’s mouth is filled with blood, and Vic’s face is covered with Armadillo’s blood.   

 

In another episode of The Shield, Police Captain David Aceveda is forced at gunpoint to perform oral sex on a gang member.  While holding the barrel of a gun to the policeman’s mouth, the gang member asks him, “You ever suck a dick like a cell bitch, cop man?  Huh?" He threatens to kill the officer if he doesn’t perform fellatio, and the officer is seen and heard gagging and whimpering in humiliation.  The gang member then gets one of his friends to take a picture of the scene as he climaxes into the policeman’s mouth.  In the following season, Captain Aceveda repeatedly acted out violent rape fantasies with a prostitute.

 

These basic cable examples appeared on the FX basic cable network. Ryan Murphy, the creator of another FX series, Nip/Tuck, publicly stated that it might be his legacy to make possible a rear-entry sex scene on broadcast television. And Senators, if you subscribe to a cable or satellite service, you are forced to pay almost $9.00 every year to the FX network so they can produce and air this kind of material. And with tens of millions of Americans forced into the industry’s bundling scheme, FX reaps hundreds of millions of dollars each year to produce this material, and that is before they sell even one TV commercial. FCC Chairman Martin has rightfully pointed out that “if a family must continue to pay for programming even when they object to it, there is little or no incentive for programmers to respond."

 

This Committee has heard personally from cable distributors who would like to provide their customers with an opportunity to pick and choose – and pay for – only the networks they want. But they can’t. As DISH Network CEO Charlie Ergen, and American Cable Association president Matt Polka have told you, the cable network media conglomerates won’t allow it. So we must ask: are the cable industry’s Washington insiders looking out for consumers and families, or are they protecting a business model that not only forces unwanted content into tens of millions of homes, but also makes them pay for it?

 

As troubling as those content examples are, Mr. Chairman, I am equally disgusted by the seeming contempt the industry has for anyone who would suggest reasonable self-restraint. Last month the CEO of Time-Warner hypocritically warned parents: "visit the Holocaust museum in Washington and you'll see what happens when government gets control of the message.”  Yet no one is arguing that government should do any such thing.  Are we to believe that the entertainment industry views the overwhelming concern of millions of parents and families with that level of disdain?  If so, how can we believe anything they say about wanting to help parents protect children?

 

Every time the public – and our public servants – call for more responsible behavior, the industry refuses to have a meaningful dialog or offer real solutions. Rather than coming before you to address the negative impact their products have on children, they turn the conversation into a Constitutional lecture and hire a legendary scholar to speak for them. Rather than acknowledging the scientific evidence manifested in over a thousand medical and clinical studies, they underwrite their own research and point to its differing, but uncorroborated, conclusion. And rather than focusing on their statutory public interest requirements for using the public airwaves, they shift the conversation to entertainment in general and invoke the always-sobering term, “chilling effect.” Many TV executives have used this term publicly to denounce the FCC’s Janet Jackson ruling and the impact it’s had on their business. But I wonder how “chilling” things really are if, as we’ve read in TV industry trade papers, the Fox broadcast network will be airing a program this fall where an amorous monkey joins a man and woman in a sexual encounter.

 

But I suppose the industry’s behavior should come as no surprise. Look at their track record. After the Janet Jackson incident, television executives were quick to come before the Congress to pledge zero-tolerance for indecency. Shortly thereafter they filed a federal lawsuit which would allow them to use the F-word at any time of the day, even in front of millions of children. And sadly they managed to find two judges in New York City who agreed to that preposterous abuse of the public airwaves.

 

In a slap in the face to the Congress and to millions of outraged families, CBS will be arguing in front of the Third Circuit in September that the Super Bowl striptease was not indecent.  To add insult to injury, a few years ago CBS’ parent company signed a Consent Decree with the FCC admitting to violating broadcast decency law, agreeing to pay a fine and submitting to a detailed compliance plan to insure that indecent material would not meet its air during the times when children are most likely to be in the audience.  To this day, there is no hint that CBS has implemented the terms of this Consent Decree.

 

Through efforts like the “TV Boss” campaign, the industry promised you hundreds of millions of dollars to educate parents on content-blocking technologies, yet all objective data shows that parents still have no constructive grasp over the TV ratings system or the technologies that are reliant upon them.

 

And speaking of the rating system, let’s talk about parental controls for a moment. When the V-Chip was introduced the television industry denounced it as censorial heresy. That is, they denounced it until they found a way to manipulate what was supposed to be a simple and transparent prophylactic device. Instead the industry turned the V-Chip into a means for even more graphic content while using it as an excuse to violate the broadcast decency law.

 

Our research into the television ratings system has repeatedly concluded that the industry’s application of it is arbitrary, inconsistent, capricious and self-serving. In a study we released this past April, content ratings descriptors were either inaccurate or missing 2/3rds of the time. During the study period, not one single program on primetime broadcast television was rated TV-MA, meaning that the networks felt all of their content was appropriate for children as young as 14.

 

Mr. Chairman, please understand that this is an industry that I love with every fiber of my being. I spent most of my career – more than 20 years – working in the media industry, the majority of which was in broadcasting and cable television. It is a wonderful business, capable of producing not only enlightening, educating and entertaining programming, but it is also a lucrative business with profit margins that most industries can only dream of. But with the ability to deliver a product directly into every home in America comes a duty to serve the public interest. As Commissioner Copps stated in this very room, the term “public interest” appears no less than 112 times in the original law that addresses the use of the public airwaves. But by my count, the terms “Nielsen Ratings” or “advertiser cost per thousand” or “earnings per share” never once appeared. I have publicly stated a number of times that “public interest” and “corporate interest” are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes the two do not see eye-to eye, and when they don’t, it is the public interest which must prevail. I ask you, Mr. Chairman, when does hurting children serve the public interest?

 

Nobody on Capitol Hill needs help from me in reading data from a national poll, but last week we all received information that needs to be carefully considered here today. The highly respected Kaiser Family Foundation released data proving just how concerned parents are about this matter. Even though the vast majority of parents say they are closely monitoring the media behavior of their children, parents are so concerned about the harmful content that still reaches their kids that 66% favor new regulation to limit the amount of sex and violence during the early evening hours. Let me say that again: 2/3rds of parents favor new regulation. Clearly the status quo is not working.

 

Mr. Chairman, the entertainment industry could help if it wanted to, but it doesn’t want to. Producers should step back and reconsider their seeming urge for “one-upsmanship” in their depictions of ever-more-graphic violent content. Broadcasters could air graphic material later at night, when children are in bed. And the cable industry could allow its customers to select and pay for the cable networks they want to purchase.

 

The industry knows graphic and indecent material is inappropriate for certain audiences and at certain times. They embrace rules to prevent words and actions from being used in their workplace which could be sexually harassing. In fact the content samples above could constitute grounds for dismissal of a network employee if he/she acted in such a way to a coworker. And the industry regularly incorporates into employment agreements what is called a Morals Clause, allowing them to fire an employee or an artist for broadly-defined behavior. Yet they somehow justify delivering material like I’ve just described into living rooms around the country.

 

When it comes to behaving responsibly, sadly the industry is the model of inertia. Only when forced by the public through you is there every any positive movement undertaken by the industry.

 

Mr. Chairman, I know in my heart that the industry is capable of solving this issue if they truly wanted to. The people I worked with during my twenty-plus years in the industry are brilliant and creative. In fact the industry did implement solutions for decades in the past. But the question is: will they help to solve this issue today? If the National Rifle Association can help the Congress pass consensus gun control legislation, then I believe Hollywood can help the Congress deal with this issue. Moreover, it must.

 

Representing more than a million concerned families, we stand ready to work with you to forge real solutions to these problems. I hope the industry will step up and join us.

 

Thank you.

 

To review the PTC’s latest research on violence during primetime broadcast television, click here.

For details about the PTC’s research on the TV ratings system, click here.

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