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CBS: Selling Serial Killers to Kids

by Christopher Gildemeister


"Some people express a sense of guilt that they are drawn to the show. Maybe the guilt is more intense because they find themselves identifying with and liking the guy." – Dexter star Michael C. Hall (USA Today, December 10, 2006)


The PTC has brought to public attention the fact that the CBS network, by showing the adult drama Dexter on prime-time broadcast television, is exposing children to extreme graphic violence and dark, disturbing themes.  But now, not only is CBS making a hero of a psychotic serial killer on TV – they are marketing toys and video games of him as well.  


According to Nielsen Media Research, during its first season on the Showtime premium cable network, Dexter’s largest audience of 2-to-11-year-olds consisted of 17,000 children. During its first week on CBS, Dexter drew an audience of 156,000 2-to-11-year-olds…and on the February 24th airing, the audience increased to 206,000 2-to-11-year-olds. By choosing to put Dexter on prime-time broadcast television, CBS has increased young children’s exposure to the series’ gruesome content by over 1000%.


In its relentless campaign to absolve itself of any responsibility for the programming it chooses to put on the public airwaves, CBS tells parents to use the V-Chip to block children from seeing Dexter. This advice is undercut by the fact that CBS has rated the program TV-14…even though, on Showtime, it was rated TV-MA for mature audiences only. CBS’ motive for this change in rating is purely one cynical self-interest; were Dexter rated accurately, CBS would find it well-nigh impossible to attract advertisers.  


Of course CBS claims that, for the broadcast version, it has edited out everything that could conceivably be harmful to children. Yet this promise is belied both by the actual content of the program, and by the words of the president of the Showtime network in his discussion of the CBS “repurposing” of Dexter :


“CBS never asked us to reduce the number of killings or to change the psychology [of Dexter]…Aside from some cosmetic changes, you’ll see virtually the same show.” – Showtime Entertainment President Robert Greenblatt (Entertainment Weekly, February 1, 2008)


But exposing children to Dexter‘s graphic gore and deeply disturbing themes is just the beginning. For decades, heroes from TV shows have been “spun off” into toys and games, from the mania for Davy Crockett merchandise in the 1950s to the innumerable TV/toy franchises of today. Now, CBS plans to do the same with its “heroic” serial killer.


On February 27th, Worldscreen.com announced that Showtime has awarded a licensing contract to toy manufacturer Bif Bang Pow! to make “collectable” bobble heads and action figures based on the characters in Dexter. “Dexter falls right in line with what Bif Bang Pow! is trying to achieve… It’s an exciting show and we plan to create equally exciting collectibles to compliment it,” enthused Jason Lenzi, Bif Bang Pow!’s CEO. The bobblehead doll is already available for purchase on Showtime’s Dexter website, along with other merchandise like T-shirts spattered with fake blood. One can just imagine CBS executives enthralled at the prospect of children clamoring for their very own Dexter action figures.


And those children too old to play with Dexter dolls need not despair – for Showtime has also partnered with Marc Ecko Entertainment to create a video game based on the program. Ecko’s Vice President of Entertainment Marc Fernandez is thrilled at the prospect of creating a video game around the character of a brutal serial killer. "Our game designers, writers, and artists are going to give Dexter's morally complex world the kind of interactivity that gamers will love," he said. Ecko also stated that it will work closely with Showtime to be certain that the Dexter video game is as faithful to the television program as possible. If the game actually is faithful to the TV program Dexter, it will be rated AO (for Adults Only), inasmuch as the original rating of the Showtime television program was TV-MA DLSV. However, given the video game industry’s track record of misrating their games (both Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Manhunt 2 contained hidden explicit sexual content, but were initially rated M instead of Adults-Only), whether the Dexter game will be rated accurately remains to be seen.


Once, television offered children positive role models – from Davy Crockett and the Lone Ranger up through Dr.  Quinn, Medicine Woman. Offering such heroes helped to shape children’s worldview. But today, CBS is proud to offer a psychotic who dismembers and eviscerates others as one of its chief prime-time exemplars.


Popular culture does have an influence – especially on children. The youngsters who read graphically violent horror comics like The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear in the 1950s grew up to make TV shows and movies like Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt. The children who grew up watching the Friday the 13th movie series in the 1980s are now making “torture porn” films like Saw, Hostel and Captivity, replete with sadism, mutilation and misogyny. Is it merely a coincidence that as popular culture has glorified ever-more explicit violence to our children – on TV, in movies, in music and in video games -- the epidemic of violence in society (particularly in youth-centered areas like schools and colleges) has increased?


By choosing to make a serial killer a hero for children on prime-time TV, in toys and in video games, CBS’ executives have demonstrated their contempt and lack of concern for our children, our culture and our future – for everything, in fact, other than the almighty dollar.


"Dexter contains all the elements of violence that would make it particularly detrimental for children to watch.  The violence is perpetrated by someone who is portrayed as a hero doing good for society. The violence is graphic, explicit, and brutal. The hero shows no remorse or concern about his violence. The hero is rewarded for his violent behavior.  All of these factors are likely to maximize the influence it would have in stimulating violent behavior in the children and adolescents who watch the program regularly. Parents should not allow children or adolescents to watch it. CBS should not present it at a time when children are likely to see it, and CBS should not promote it for children and adolescents.” -- L Rowell Huesmann, Professor of Communication Studies & Psychology Director, Research Center for Group Dynamics Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan 


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