Sunday May 5, 2013

NEW YORK -- Violence, gore and gunplay were staples on prime-time television even in the most sensitive period directly following the Newtown school shooting.

A study of 392 prime-time scripted programs on broadcast networks shown during the month following Vice President Joe Biden’s January meeting with entertainment industry executives on the topic revealed that 193 had some incident of violence, according to the Parents Television Council. Some are cartoonish -- quite literally, with Homer strangling Bart for mouthing off on "The Simpsons" -- but there is plenty of gunplay, stabbings and beat-downs.

Here’s a sample of the incidents captured by the PTC between Jan. 11 and Feb. 11:

n A character on ABC’s "Body of Proof" says he dreams of ripping a woman’s brain out while she’s still alive, but he’s shot as he’s about to stick a hook up her nose. Then he’s pushed off a balcony and killed.

n A woman on Fox’s "The Following" jams an ice pick into her eye.

n A prison riot episode of CBS’ "Hawaii Five-O" includes one man trying to kill someone in a laundry room press

n A man on CBS’ "Criminal Minds" is shot dead by the FBI as he tries to cut the eyelids off a gallery owner’s face.

n Even President Grant on ABC’s "Scandal" gets into the act, removing an oxygen mask from a woman’s face so she suffocates.


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Real life has continued to intrude on television entertainment as the months go by. NBC pulled an episode of its serial killer drama "Hannibal" after the Boston Marathon bombing, as did ABC with a "Castle" episode where a character stepped on a pressure-sensitive bomb. Some Newtown parents objected to a recent "Glee" episode that depicted a school shooting.

"I think it is only going to get worse," said Dr. Victor Strasburger, pediatrics professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, who has written frequently on the topic of violence in the media. He said media executives are "not willing to own up to their public health responsibilities."

TV executives are reluctant to talk about violent content, and when pressed question any link between what they air on television and aggressive behavior in real life. Schedules get shifted around when tragic events are in the news, but there’s no indication they have changed the types of programs being made. Policy debates have largely overlooked the issue, focusing instead on background checks for gun owners or bans on assault weapons.

"I’ve had a hard time finding these studies to be very useful to parents or anyone who is looking at this objectively," said Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes government involvement in television programming.

Still, it’s a sobering body count.

The parents’ group said it found not only an increase in gore from other studies it has conducted over 18 years but a greater specificity and darkness to the violence.

"There has been no accountability, in my opinion, in terms of the degree and amount of violence," said Tim Winter, the parents’ group president.

Broadcast networks find themselves squeezed by cable networks that are able to be more explicit in what they show; Dyke, in fact, said it is unfair for a group like the PTC to study broadcast violence and not include what’s on cable. There’s also a feeling that they’re giving viewers what they want. The explosive popularity of AMC’s "The Walking Dead" among young viewers has clearly made broadcasters take notice.

A CBS representative declined comment on the PTC study, while ABC, NBC and Fox did not respond to a request for comment.

"Networks are out to make money and will do whatever it takes to make money," Strasburger said. "When the public health of children comes into conflict with big money, big money always wins."