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Dying to Entertain

Violence on Prime Time Broadcast Television


By Caroline Schulenburg

Executive Summary:


TV violence has become a paradox of sorts.  Medical and social science have proven conclusively that children are adversely affected by exposure to it yet millions of parents think nothing of letting their children watch C.S.I. or other, equally violent programs.  Prominent leaders in the entertainment industry publicly decry violent entertainment but then continue to produce and distribute it.  Despite the widespread consensus that TV violence is a significant problem, it has become not only more frequent, but more graphic in recent years.  Indeed, the television season that began in the fall of 2005 was one of the most violent in recent history -- averaging 4.41 instances of violence per hour during prime time -- an increase of 75% since the 1998 television season.


Dying to Entertain is the PTC's second examination of TV violence during prime time on the six major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB).  Using the previous report, TV Bloodbath (released in December 2003 and analyzing content from the 1998, 2000, and 2002 television seasons) as a baseline, the PTC discerned some longitudinal trends and qualitative differences over the past eight years.  For this Special Report, PTC analysts reviewed programming from the first two weeks of the November, February and May sweeps during the 2003-2004, 2004-2005, and 2005-2006 television seasons for a total of 1,187.5 programming hours.   


Major findings:


Between 1998 and 2006:

  • Violence increased in every time slot:

    • Violence during the 8:00 p.m. Family Hour has increased by 45%

    • Violence during the 9:00 p.m. hour has increased by 92%

    • Violence during the 10:00 p.m. hour has increased by 167%

  • ABC experienced the biggest increase in violent content overall.  In 1998, ABC averaged .93 instances of violence per hour during prime time.  By 2006, ABC was averaging 3.80 instances of violence per hour an increase of 309%.

  • Fox, the second-most violent network in 1998, experienced the smallest increase.  Fox averaged 3.43 instances of violence per hour in 1998 and 3.84 instances of violence per hour by 2006 an increase of only 12%.

  • Violent scenes increasingly include a sexual element.  Rapists, sexual predators and fetishists are cropping up with increasing frequency on prime time programs like Law and Order: S.V.U., C.S.I., C.S.I. Miami, C.S.I. New York, Medium, Crossing Jordan, Prison Break, E.R. and House.

On an hour by hour basis:

  • Every network experienced an increase in violence during the 9:00 and 10:00 hours between 1998 and the 2005-2006 television season.

  • ABC experienced the biggest increase in violent content during the Family Hour.  In 1998 ABC was the least-violent network, averaging only .13 instances of violence per hour.  By 2006, ABC was averaging 2.23 instances of violence per hour, an increase of 1615.4%.

  • UPN and Fox were the only networks to feature less violence during the Family Hour in 2005-2006 than in 1998.  Violence on Fox decreased by 18%, and on UPN by 83%.

  • ABC experienced the biggest increase in violent content during the 9:00 hour, jumping from .31 instances per hour in 1998 to 5.71 instances per hour during the 2005-2006 season an increase of 1,742%.

  • NBC experienced the biggest increase in violent content 635% during the 10:00 hour, from 2 instances of violence per hour in 1998 to nearly 15 instances of violence per hour in 2005-2006.

During the 2005-2006 Season:

  • Nearly half (49%) of all episodes airing during the study period contained at least one instance of violence.

  • The WB network had the highest frequency of violence during the Family Hour during the 2005-'06 season with an average of 3.74 incidents of violence per hour.

  • CBS was the most violent network during the 9:00 hour during the 2005-'06 season with an average of 7.53 instances of violence per hour.

  • ABC's short-lived series Night Stalker was the most violent program on television in the 2005-2006 television season.  In the sole, one-hour episode that aired during the study period there were 26 instances of violence.

  • Every episode of every program airing on NBC in the 10:00 hour during the 2005-'06 season contained at least one instance of violence.  On a per-hour basis, NBC's 10:00 programming averaged an alarming 14.69 instances of violence.

  • 56% of all violence on prime time network television during the 2005-2006 season was person-on-person violence.

  • For each hour of prime time, CBS had the highest percentage of deaths depicted on screen during the 2005-'06 season.  During the 8:00 hour, 66% of violent scenes depicted a death.  During the 9:00 and 10:00 hours 68% of violent scenes depicted a death.

  • Across the board, 54% of violent scenes contained either a depiction of death (13%) or an implied death (41%) during the 2005-'06 season.

Violence on television continues unabated despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to a direct and causal relationship between violent entertainment products and aggressive behavior in children.  Yet the only solution offered by the entertainment industry thus far has been the V-Chip.  But the V-Chip is no solution.


The PTC's research shows that every broadcast network has had problems with the accurate and consistent application of content descriptors (D, S, L, or V) which are designed to work in conjunction with the V-Chip to help parents block objectionable programming. 


A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that content descriptors are not being used on the vast majority of general audience shows containing sex, violence, or adult language.  Eight out of 10 television shows with violent or sexual behavior did not receive the V or S content descriptors.  Children's programs also contain a significant amount of violence, most of which is not indicated by a FV content descriptor. 


Clearly, we need a better solution. 


Advertisers have a role to play in curbing TV violence.  Using their unique position of influence, they can encourage broadcasters to reduce the frequency and explicitness of TV violence. 


Broadcast affiliates, too, can play a role by preempting excessively violent programs and refusing to air violent programs in syndication during times of day when children are watching TV. 


Many lawmakers have proposed legislation to curb TV violence, but all attempts to legislatively address this problem have failed on First Amendment grounds.  Perhaps it is time for Congress to revisit this issue and consider including violence in the category of "indecent" content that can be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Full Report | Statement by Commissioner Copps | Video Statement by Dr. Joseph Zanga, the Brody School of Medicine | Warning Violent Content: Watch the clip tape presented at the press conference




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