Violence: TV biz called to arms

March 29, 1993
Playback
By Etan Vlessing

The public clamor for an end to violence on television shows no signs of abating. Instead, the revitalized discussion has triggered the emergence of a coalition of groups working with broadcasters to address the problem.

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which has had a voluntary code in place since 1987 to control violence on TV, has revised that code and recently submitted those draft revisions to the CRTC for approval. The revisions are a response to mounting public concerns about media portrayals of gratuitous violence.

Alan Mirabelli, president of the Ottawa-based Alliance for Children and Television, says parents, fearing violence in society is out of hand, want more control over what their children watch on TV. But he adds an important point, saying parents are especially concerned with movies glorifying sex and violence that are brought home from video stores.

Besides the voluntary code, the CAB document may eventually include other initiatives like a classification system of violent material to warn parents about what their children might watch on TV, promoting media literacy and banning the broadcast of violent programs before 9 pm.

By taking the self-regulatory initiative, broadcasters may be better able to fend off calls by members of Parliament to introduce new criminal offenses to outlaw excessively violent programs.

Earlier this month, Bud Bird, chairman of the Commons standing committee on communication and culture, reportedly announced his committee had considered asking the government to pass criminal code amendments restricting some violent TV and video rental programming.

"Slasher" movies

Among such items would be "slasher and snuff movies", or those focused on maiming and killing people.

In reply to public anger, the broadcast industry last month formed the National Action Group to engage a public dialogue on societal violence.

Dr. Laurier LaPierre, who chairs the NAG's organizing committee, says broadcasters want to appear responsible in the public mind for what goes on the air. "The broadcast industry needs not only rigid codes but an alliance with parents, teachers and researchers to bring about a national dialogue on the issue."

The NAG has support from the CBC, private broadcasters, the cable TV industry and the Department of Communications, among others. Its founding followed a February conference on TV violence organized by the Toronto-based C.M. Hincks Institute. Funded in part by the CRTC, the conference brought together TV industry representatives, politicians and concerned parent and professional groups.

Competing agendas

But behind such calls for co-operation are competing agendas. The CBC, as a public broadcaster, insists its programming is hardly violent. And private broadcasters, while welcoming the CAB initiative, insist television is unfairly taking the heat over what ails the wider society.

David Mintz, president of Global Television, says the causes of societal violence are multi-faceted and television is not solely to blame for the problem. What is more, most violent programming originates from Hollywood. "That's where you see the blood really spill," he says.

Dr. LaPierre agrees. "Television should not be construed as the main culprit. Video stores use the box for their own purposes, and they will have to put their house in order."

But Barry Duncan, president of the Association for Media Literacy, based in Weston, Ontario, says pointing the finger of guilt at American programmers accomplishes little. "Deflecting criticism onto Hollywood makes the industry appear as if, while not solving the problem of TV violence, it's at least not responsible for it," he warns.

Duncan adds industry executives should instead do more to promote media literacy, which offers young people the tools to understand the violence they see on television.

The CRTC, which has spearheaded the current TV violence debate, sees a prized role for itself. Industry observers say the federal watchdog realizes emerging technology and the advent of near-demand pay-TV will render the CRTC all but redundant as a mediator between consumers and programmers.

Petition

The CRTC has also moved into action at the urging of Prime Minister Mulroney. Late last year, he received a petition signed by 1.3 million Canadians calling for restrictions on TV violence. The signatures had been gathered by 13-year-old Virginie Lariviere, whose sister had earlier been raped and murdered.

Observers say the government is eager to be seen to act on TV violence in an election year. After the CRTC approves the industry code later this spring, the CAB document will be passed on to the Commons committee.

The committee has already heard from a number of industry representatives on the issue, and will report its findings to the prime minister in May.

Sheila Finestone, a Liberal MP and vice-chairman of the parliamentary committee, says she will be looking for action on "slasher" videos and offensive rap music lyrics, both available to children in stores. "We need to encourage those things that will help reduce violence -- the criminal code, parental responsibility, media literacy and teaching curriculums."

Reacted favorably

Finestone adds the committee has reacted favorably to models of classification systems already in place in Britain and Australia. Both disallow the broadcast of violent programming before 9 p.m., and flag programs depicting gratuitous or sensational violence.

CRTC chief Keith Spicer has already told industry executives that screening committees likely to classify TV programming in this country should include non-industry participants such as psychologists and parents. This would ensure a tougher voluntary code would be rigidly maintained and applied indepedent of the industry as well as within.

Warnings of violent programming will likely be by means of appropriate symbols. Dr. LaPierre of NAG favors placing on TV screens a red dot for danger, a yellow dot for caution and a green dot for going ahead with family viewing.

"A simple system like this means if parents and their children wanted to watch a violent program with a red dot, they would do so with their own conscience," Dr. LaPierre says.

No penalties

The British and Australian classification models do not entail penalties or direct policing mechanisms. But the performance of broadcasters is assessed by regulatory authorities during licence renewal hearings.

Others see in Ottawa's latest shakeup of the media yet another attempt to suppress programming that is morally or politically challenging.

Jack Gray, president of the Writers Guild of Canada, received what he terms a "hostile reception" when he argued the case for retaining freedom of expression before the Commons committee.

"The committee appeared annoyed that the question (of freedom of expression) had even come up, Gray says. He adds the MPs seemed more intent on hearing practical ways to reduce TV violence.

But Sandra Macdonald, president of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, agrees that when politicians and regulatory bodies involve themselves in deciding how TV programs are selected for broadcast, it does not bode well for freedom of expression.