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Broadcast Networks: More Gore in Store For Viewers



American entertainment, and particularly television, has always had a fascination with violence. In the earliest days of TV, Westerns and crime shows were popular; and programs involving crime continue to be favorites to this day. For decades, such shows abounded with murders and fistfights, and usually concluded with a gun battle. Yet this violence was generally sanitized. Shootings were shown, but blood generally was not.  Fistfights rarely if ever resulted in bruises. And torture was occasionally implied, but never shown.


It is indisputable that, in order to create excitement and entertain viewers, some form of “action” on TV shows is necessary; yet such action need not feature bloodshed and gore…particularly on programs which are watched by children, or aired at times when children are likely to be in the audience.  


Yet in recent years, explicit depictions of bloodshed and gore have become standard on television. Indeed, the showing of graphic violence – with blood, severed body parts and depictions of excruciating torture – now seems to be yet another area in which the broadcast networks seem determined to push the boundaries. It is a trend which is particularly noticeable on several new and returning series this fall.


It comes as no surprise that the Fox network has lead the way in graphic violence this fall. With programs like the often blood-spattered Terminator:The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Prison Break, and the (thankfully not-airing-this-fall) 24, with its frequent emphasis on torture, Fox has established itself as the leader in explicit gore. The network’s forensic procedural Bones revels in grotesque and gory situations. For example, the September 16th episode featured an opossum eating the head off a human corpse, along with digital reconstructions of the same head in a lab. But the most prominent source of gruesome imagery for Fox this fall has been its new program Fringe. The first moment’s of this show’s premiere episode on September 9th detailed a face-eating virus striking the passengers and crew of a jetliner, the skin shown bubbling up and peeling off of individuals’ faces. The next week showed viewers an eyeball being removed from a corpse’s socket, then left sitting on the body’s face. The same episode also showed a terrified woman, shaking and sobbing in fear, tied down on a surgical bed. Her mouth was locked open with a brace-like object, as a man approached her with a scalpel, preparing to “harvest” her pituitary gland. Fringe creator J.J. Abrams seems particularly to delight in featuring the goriest and most frightening scenes in the program’s opening minutes – as close as possible to the ending of the Family Hour, as Fringe airs at 9:00 p.m. Tuesdays.


The CW, when not urging teenagers to drink, take drugs and have sex (particularly between teenage boys and their friends’ mothers) on such shows as Gossip Girl and 90210, also delights in explicit gore on its ghost-hunter program Supernatural. On the September 18th episode (9:00 p.m.), during a séance in which medium has commanded a spectral force to “show me your face,” blood runs out of the medium’s eyes like tears. The viewer is then shown the now-eyeless medium, with blood gushing out of her eye sockets. Later, a demonic man forces a woman to vomit forth a dark force-like cloud which consumes her. Even the once-lighthearted Smallville revealed increasing levels of graphic violence, with the September 18th episode’s opening sure to delight children watching at the beginning of the 8:00 p.m. Family Hour – showing as it did Clark Kent being shot through the heart in bloody slow motion by his fellow super-hero Green Arrow, then writhing and gasping on the floor while bleeding to death.


But the CW is not alone in turning once child-friendly stories of superheroes into showcases for blood and gore. NBC (which had already demonstrated its commitment to extremely graphic blood and violence with its summer series Fear Itself) also is increasingly showing bloody and disturbing sequences on its own super-hero series Heroes. Case in point: the program’s September 22nd episode (9:00 p.m.), which showed the villainous Dr. Sylar attempting to steal Claire’s powers by cutting open her head and removing a portion of her brain -- with Claire awake during the entire process, of course.


Even NBC’s re-worked version of Knight Rider – a show with a concept appropriate for children if ever there was one – featured a woman graphically sawing off a man’s thumb on its September 24th premiere…in the midst of the Family Hour, of course. Even Chicago Sun-Times TV critic Misha Davenport was repulsed by the program, noting in a September 23rd review, “I'd be inclined to dismiss this as lighthearted children's fare, like David Hasselhoff's original Knight Rider from the '80s, but the violence, dialogue and skin shown on this version aren't exactly kid-friendly.“


When taken in toto with the graphic forensic procedures shown on CBS programs like its CSI franchise, and the infrequent but sometimes graphic surgery on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, it is clear that – as with its use of sex and profanity – the networks are seeking to increase the acceptability of violence, blood and gore on TV programming. Whether these actions represent an “agenda” on the part of the entertainment industry, or simply reflect broadcast TV’s obsession with attempting to imitate R-rated movies and premium cable series, is unknown; but ultimately, the reason is unimportant.  What is of significance is the fact that more and more, children are being exposed to ever-greater, and ever more graphic, amounts of violence in media. Scientific studies have demonstrated the deleterious effects of media violence on children; and, unlike obscenity, profanity or indecency, there are no laws limiting the type or amount of violence shown on the public airwaves. Thus, the extent of violence shown on television is entirely dependent on the broadcast networks’ sense of responsibility -- a thought that is more frightening than any act of violence that TV has yet shown. 


TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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