Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute


Ratings and TV Violence

You don't find shows like Geraldo and Beverly Hills 90210 being aired with Sesame Street on public broadcasting channels. Yet, some stations, when pressed to present more educational programming, have claimed that the talk show and melodrama are enlightening children's viewing. As the pressure from both parents and government increases to improve programming and lower violence, what measures would be most beneficial? What are the factors that are likely to be most influential in the debate? Who are the major players going to be?

Finding the answers to those and other questions prompted James Hamilton to organize a conference at the Sanford Institute last year on media violence and public policy. Some of the findings of that conference are already having an impact in the national discussion of this issue.

"Violence on television has not traditionally been viewed as a public policy issue," says Hamilton, director of the Duke Program on Violence and the Media, at the Institute's DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism. "Usually, it's approached from a First Amendment or moralistic stance. However, if you consider the negative effect in children that TV violence has been shown to have, it immediately becomes a matter of public policy."

The two-day Duke conference gathered key participants in the TV violence debate, including the Canadian inventor of the V-chip, a device used to block violent and sexually explicit TV shows, and Sen. Paul Simon, a champion of efforts to reduce TV violence.

"The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated that the television industry take action on the issue of TV violence or the FCC would," says Hamilton, assistant professor of public policy, political science and economics. In light of that mandate, Hamilton and other academics were invited to speak to a joint meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable Television Association to advise them on the conference findings.

"There were four salient points I wanted to make with the broadcasters," Hamilton says. The points were:

  • Scientific research does indicate which types of violent programming are more harmful, and ratings should reflect these differences.
  • The V-chip technology allows broadcasters to provide detailed content information to viewers at a low cost.
  • Age-based categories for programming may fail to provide parents or other viewers with sufficient information on the nature of the content.
  • "Reality" programs contain violent incidents which may have harmful effects. Cartoon programming also has violence shown to be harmful in laboratory settings. Both should be rated in the television classification system.

    Hamilton also urged the FCC to create an Internet-accessible dataset that would allow parents and researchers to see what programs the stations were claiming as educational for children. In an order issued on children's television, the FCC announced that it would pursue Hamilton's suggestion.

    "My hope is that the rating system that will eventually be adopted is one that is based on types of programming rather than age-based criteria, as the movie system is," says Hamilton. He points out that warnings on violent programs have been shown to influence who sponsors the program, and do slightly lower the amount of paid advertising on prime-time films. "This means there will be a strong incentive to devise a rating system that does not provide detailed information on content; however, such a system is not the most beneficial for parents and children," he says.

    The conference and the research that has continued is a starting point for an effective system, Hamilton says. "Our job is to make sure advertisers and broadcasters take into account the full negative impact of some of their programs on society."

    -Michael Chitwood

    Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute