TV's ultimate irony: sex and violence sells only sex and violence
By Daphne Lavers
Humans are mimics. One of our strategies for learning is by watching and by repeating what we see. Repetition - the foundation of the advertising industry - increases our familiarity, our comfort level and our capability.
Visual input is the most powerful. The written word and spoken word both require intellectual processing prior to mental integration. Visual input is direct input.
These are the factors which make television and visual images the most powerful media ever developed. They also are factors which have made this media one of the most destructive.
Think of human social behaviour on a continuum with civility and respect at one end and violent, vicious depravity at the other. The pointer has been moving in the last century, the last decade, the last year, the last month. One of the strongest drivers of that movement is visual imagery - film, television and now the Internet - and their inescapable ubiquity which covers the world.
Of course, television and visual imagery include hugely positive benefits, from learning and education to experiential and connectivity effects. Consider such programs as Canada: A People's History, Traders, The West Wing and films/programs that teach, elucidate, provoke, excite. Such programs are in the minority.
In the majority are TV programs and movies that are nasty, violent, pornographic, destructive and that contribute to declining civility and to rising crime rates.
This issue is central to the exercise of broadcasting and goes to the heart of its purpose and its execution. Key components of the debate include the influence of violent television on children, the marketing of violent programs and movies to children, the influence of violent programming on society, and the rights and duties of broadcasters who use publicly-granted airwaves.
There is little or no debate about simply stopping violent programming, or even about limiting its increase. Labelling is about as far as the debate has moved, with massive controversy over even naming the kinds of programming on television. Last year the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched hearings into marketing violence to children, and issued a scathing report on that subject. Rating systems for movies and television have been developed, launched and attacked as confusing, unhelpful and obfuscating.
With the launch of a new broadcasting season, the beginning of a broadcasting ratings system in Canada, the censure of a satellite broadcaster for beaming illegal X-rated pornography to subscribers and heightened focus on violence in visual imagery, Broadcast Dialogue examines the violence issue.
The degeneration of television
'At the close of the century that ushered in television, the medium's early promise has been erased by the rapid degeneration of televised programming content. Today, even shows airing in the earliest prime-time hour are sexually explicit, vulgar, and violent. Further, all indications are that, despite the growing consensus regarding the media's influence on behaviour - especially among the young - this trend is not only continuing, but accelerating.'
This was the summary of the Parents Television Council (PTC) study of prime time, released in August, 1999, entitled The Family Hour: Worse Than Ever and Headed for New Lows.
'Even during the earliest prime-time hour, traditionally known as the `family hour', the television networks are broadcasting increasingly explicit and frequent depictions of sexuality, profanity, and violence over the public airwaves and into America's homes. The rise in the amount of sex and profanity, as well as violence, during the 'family hour' does American families a tremendous disservice. The continued and accelerating degradation of network television in all these areas has a powerful cumulative impact on thinking and behaviour, especially among children.'
While a general sense of the increase in televised raunch is widespread, PTC quantifies that increase. The 1999 PTC report looked only at what was previously reserved as the `family hour', 8-9 p.m., in the early ratings weeks of 1999. The data was compared with the last PTC report a year and a half previous.
- Foul language reached an average of 1.44 instances each hour, a jump of 58%.
- References to sex acts during the family hour have increased dramatically - by 77% - in the past year and a half.
- Instances of objectionable material overall (including sexual content, violence and obscenity) rose an average of 75%.
- The percentage of violent content rose faster than any other category, nearly doubling, to a per-hour average of 1.62 incidences from 0.87 in November '97. That is an increase of 86%.
In August of this year, the PTC released its current study, The Sour Family Hour: 8 to 9 Goes From Bad to Worse, beginning the report with an open letter appealing to the presidents of the major U.S. networks to bring back the family hour.
This year's report states: 'Some of the sexual content fell into subcategories covering topics which a generation ago would seldom have seen the light of day in 10 p.m. programming, let alone 8 p.m. fare. These subcategories were: homosexuality, oral sex, pornography, masturbation, genitalia, and so-called kinky practices, such as phone sex, group sex, and bondage.'
In the August-released report, PTC revealed that violence increased by 70%. The May '99 figure was 1.62 incidents per hour, which was close to double the late '97 figure (0.87).
With the release of The Sour Hour, the Parents Television Council announced it is launching a public national campaign 'to secure public backing for the voluntary restoration of the Family Hour,' according to PTC President L. Brent Bozell. 'We will also publicly shame those advertisers who market and sponsor the violence, sexual raunch, and vulgarity to our nation's children. We will name names, and often. It saddens and frustrates me to no end that it has gotten to this point - publicly shaming adults for marketing trash to 10 million children every night. They should know better. Unfortunately, we have no other choice. The networks, affiliates, and sponsors are robbing our children of their innocence, and this must stop.'
Violent video and addiction
'Every year, the media uses ever greater quantities (of violence) to hook their audience,' said U.S. Army Lt. Col. (Retired) Dave Grossman. 'One hundred years ago, the alcohol industry was murdering people in their battle to keep selling alcohol to children. In the temperance movement, their initial battle was to get laws to prevent the sale of alcohol to children, and the alcohol industry was brutally, viciously battling against that. Fifty years ago, the tobacco industry was spending millions of dollars a year in a systematic battle to keep selling tobacco to children. Why did the alcohol and tobacco industries want so desperately to continue to sell their products to children? Because the addictive process is so much more powerful if we can start when they're children ... (In visual imagery) the violence is the addictive substance, the violence is the nicotine in the cigarette, it is the alcohol in the beer.'
Grossman is a psychologist and retired U.S. Airborne Ranger Infantry officer who both studied and taught at West Point Military Academy. He researched 'enabling violence', learning and teaching how to overcome natural and instinctive barriers to killing, an essential task for the armed forces. He has developed and become expert in his own specialty, 'killology', the science, psychology and physiology of killing and he has transferred that expertise, since his retirement, to civilian life. Grossman doesn't mince words, and doesn't worry about political correctness.
Visual imagery industries, including film and television, are teaching children how to kill using the same techniques as the U.S. military and creating an addiction to violence which manifests across society, Grossman asserts. 'Violent visual imagery ... is a toxic addictive substance like alcohol and nicotine, and we have an industry which is marketing it to children,' he said.
How it works
The psychological development of humans follows fairly standard and now well-understood pathways, including the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. The age of that ability is in dispute, the occurrence of it is not.
Think of a two-year-old who believes in Santa Claus; everything that child sees is real. Think of a 16-year-old; the teenager knows the difference. The age at which that ability develops can be anywhere from about five to mid-teenage years. In a paper based on his public presentations, Grossman describes in unflinching terms what it means for a child to watch violent television.
'When young children see somebody shot, stabbed, raped, brutalized, degraded, or murdered on TV, to them it is as though it were actually happening. To have a child of three, four, or five watch a `splatter' movie, learning to relate to a character for the first 90 minutes and then in the last 30 minutes watch helplessly as that new friend is hunted and brutally murdered is the moral and psychological equivalent of introducing your child to a friend, letting her play with that friend, and then butchering that friend in front of your child's eyes. And this happens to our children hundreds upon hundreds of times.'
Violence is the ultimate quick-hit attention-grabber. And there is very good evolutionary reason for that. 'We are biologically primed to seek survival data; the ultimate survival data is violence,' said Grossman. 'The one act on the playground that is guaranteed to draw every child like a magnet - a fight. Children will fight to see a fight literally. If there is violence in their environment they cannot turn away from it because their survival depends on witnessing and incorporating that behaviour as quickly as possible.' In a nutshell, that's why violence is rivetting, whether on-screen, on the highway or in the home.
Learning by watching
The teaching ability of visual imagery is a truism; a picture is worth a thousand words. While paying attention to violent visual imagery is a survival mechanism, feeding that attention turns it into an addiction. That humans learn from watching is axiomatic. Classic studies have proven children's ability to learn new skills by watching them demonstrated on television, as have the plethora of 'how-to' programs from home renovation to car repair.
Watching repeated acts of violence, cruelty and incivility teaches those acts; witness the entry into the common lexicon of dismissive, rude sayings such as 'bite me' and the increase in profanity. Witness also the classic copycat crimes, where widespread media exposure to a particular modus operandi results in the re-enactment of that modus operandi somewhere else.
'Children often imitate what they see on television, and this imitation is not limited to playful, harmless behaviour,' said Dr. Joanne Cantor, professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin, speaking to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in October last year on broadcasters' public interest obligations to children. Cantor cited a 'national epidemic of serious playground injuries ... including broken bones and concussion' in Israel in the mid-90s following the introduction of World Wrestling Federation programs. That WWF-induced violence has been repeated across North America.
The addiction component
Repetition is a psychological technique used effectively to reduce or eliminate phobias; a person is repeatedly exposed to something which induces fear, with the exposure increasing in frequency, and intensity.
'Over time, when desensitization works, the phobic response becomes less and less intense,' Dr. Cantor said to the American Psychology Association in August, 2000. 'Exposure to media violence, particularly that which entails bitter hostilities or the graphic display of injuries, initially induces an intense emotional reaction in viewers. Over time and with repeated exposure, however, many viewers exhibit decreasing emotional responses to the depiction of violence and injury.' It is the same treatment as that used for phobias.
Repetition desensitizes viewers and increases tolerance for more and more, in a manner identical to drug addiction and to the principle of advertising - see a product name a thousand times and your comfort level with that product will increase. 'Exposure to media violence increases hostility levels, not just immediately after viewing but for a substantial period of time thereafter,' said Cantor, 'and these increases in hostility can make an otherwise neutral interaction seem like a provocation.'
Operant conditioning ...
Psychologists like Grossman are now applying well-known psychological methodology and analysis to contemporary culture such as television. One of the most chilling applications analyses visual imagery - television, movies and video games - as components of operant and classical conditioning.
Most North Americans spend between 20-40 hours a week watching television, with Canadian children spending an average of about 23 hours a week. That's often far more time than is spent with a parent, or on anything else other than sleep. Estimates on viewing vary, but reports state that children view up to 12,000 acts of violence a year, and over 1,000 murders. 'Operant conditioning teaches you to kill, but classical conditioning is a subtle but powerful mechanism that teaches you to like it,' Grossman wrote. Both methods are fully operational in the visual media industries.
Operant conditioning is 'a very powerful procedure of stimulus-response, stimulus-response,' Grossman described. It is repetitive training employed to ensure that essential reactions are automatic, like a police officer on a gun range firing at a 'perpetrator', or a pilot in training on a flight simulator dealing with a variety of flight procedures.
A media violence primer by Toronto activist Valerie Smith says: 'First-person shooter games function as killing simulators or conditioning devices of a type and quality used by the military and law enforcement to train staff to both shoot with accuracy and reflexively ... for example, one of the most effective and widely used simulators developed by the United States Army, Multipurpose Arcade Combat Simulator (MACS), is a modified Super Nintendo game. The Fire Arms Training Simulator (FATS) used by most law enforcement agencies in the United States, is more or less identical to the ultra-violent video arcade game Time Crisis. Both teach the user to hit a target, both help rehearse the act of killing, and both come complete with guns that have recoil. Similarly, the U.S. Marine Corps has licensed the game Doom and is using it to train their combat fire teams in tactics and to rehearse combat actions of killing.'
Every time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he or she is learning the exact same conditioned response of reflex and motor skills. The reaction becomes automatic, the skills are honed to military precision.
Scott Newark found that realization 'that we may be actually training them to be more effective', chilling. Newark, a long-time Crown prosecutor from Alberta, is now vice-chair and special counsel for the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime. What he finds even more chilling is 'providing technology to give them a bigger thrill, so that they can morph people's faces onto the images (they shoot) that they don't like.'
Classical conditioning and the power of association
Classical conditioning, also called the Pavlovian response, is the association of some stimulus with a pleasurable response. Pavlov's dogs learned to associate food with the ringing of a bell, and eventually salivated at the sound of the bell.
The associations established through visual media, primarily television and now through advertising at movie theatres, connect program content with advertising content. 'Our children watch vivid pictures of human suffering and death, and they learn to associate it with their favourite soft drink and candy bar, or their girlfriend's perfume,' said Grossman.
After the Jonesboro, Arkansas school shootings where Grossman was called in as a lead crisis trainer, one of the teachers recalled students laughing when told of the shootings. 'A similar reaction happens all the time in movie theatres when there is bloody violence,' he said. 'The young people laugh and cheer and keep right on eating popcorn and drinking pop. We have raised a generation of barbarians who have learned to associate violence with pleasure, like the Romans cheering and snacking as the Christians were slaughtered in the Coliseum.'
Scientific research on the television generation
'Following the introduction of television into the United States, the annual white homicide rate increased by 93% ... following the introduction of television into Canada, the Canadian homicide rate increased by 92% ... For both Canada and the United States, there was a lag of 10 to 15 years between the introduction of television and the subsequent doubling of the homicide rate. Given that homicide is primarily an adult activity, if television exerts its behaviour-modifying effects primarily on children, the initial television generation would have had to age 10 to 15 years before they would have been old enough to affect the homicide rate.'
This is one of the scientific results of an epidemiological study of murder by Brandon Centerwall, M.D., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle. The study, Television and Violence: The Scale of the Problem and Where Do We Go From Here, was printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association, June, 1992.
Centerwall determined that 10 to 15 years after the introduction of television murder rates at least double. His research examined the introduction of television in a small Canadian town in 1973; 'two years after the introduction of television, rates of physical aggression among children (in the town) had increased by 160%.' Centerwall also examined the introduction of television in South Africa in 1975 (hence the reference to white homicide rates, where research compared homicide rates in white societies) and predicted a doubling of the murder rate within 10 to 15 years. In fact, 12 years after the introduction of television, the murder rate was up 130%.
'All Canadian and U.S. studies of the effect of prolonged childhood exposure to television (two years or more) demonstrate a positive relationship between earlier exposure and later physical aggressiveness ... The critical period of exposure to television is pre-adolescent childhood ...the aggression-enhancing effect of exposure to television is chronic, extending into later adolescence and adulthood ... It is concluded that the introduction of television in the 1950s caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e. long-term childhood exposure to television is a causal factor behind approximately one-half of the homicides committed in the United States ... (The) epidemiological evidence indicates that if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults.'
The research is in
This report is only one of hundreds of research programs and reports to detail the influence of media violence. (And yes, there are hundreds of reports, contrary to the few 'media experts' regularly trotted out to provide a limited contrary view, research which began with the U.S. Senate in 1952 over concerns about television's influence.)
In July 2000, a Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children was issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Medical Association at a Congressional Public Health Summit on entertainment violence. It stated that ' ...the conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviour, particularly in children. Its effects are measurable and long-lasting.'
One of the most damning, recent reports was released by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in September 2000, entitled Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording and Electronic Game Industries. That report found that the entertainment industries routinely and illegitimately target-marketed violent entertainment directly to adolescents and pre-adolescents, and then denied doing so.
The FTC released a follow-up report in April of this year, a six-month review of industry actions, that indicates that the motion picture and electronic game industries have 'made some progress both in limiting advertising in popular teen media and in providing rating information in advertising.' However, it states that 'the music recording industry, unlike the motion picture and electronic game industries, has not visibly responded to the Commission's report; nor has it implemented the reforms its trade association announced just before the Report was issued.'
The next market: violent girls
In the interests of female equality - or of simply expanding the market - television programs several years ago began providing violent female role models. Mutant Ninja Turtles, Grossman observes, were the last generation of violent toddler role models, all male, replaced by the Power Rangers, half male half female - 50% gender equity in violent toddler female role models.
'That generation was cocked and primed to watch Xena Warrior princess, Nikita Femme Fatale and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' said Grossman. 'Here's the result of this. It was predicted, if we increase violent female role models, the result will be an increase in violent female behaviour. The largest growing portion of our prison population in America and in Canada...is violent female inmates, and in particular juvenile female inmates. And here's a little data; from 1990 to 1999, the juvenile violent crime rate - what happened was, the simple assault rate among males was up 35%, among females, it's up 93%; aggravated assault males was down five per cent, among females, it's up 57%. The weapons violations for juvenile males went down seven per cent, weapons violations among girls was up 44%. And so what happens is if we tweak the variable just a little bit and start incorporating violent female behaviour into our role modelling, the result is an explosion of violent female behaviour in our society.'
The continuum in Canada
Val Smith, Toronto-based media and anti-violence activist, is on the leading edge of the voices being raised against not only increasing violence but also violent pornography in both movies and broadcasting. Smith, who holds an administrative position with the Elizabeth Fry Society, tried to have rapper Eminem banned from Canada because of the violence in his rap performances, suggesting spousal homicide and child abuse.
'My focus has been media which promotes violence against women and girls,' she said in an interview. 'Surveys usually show that more women than men are in favour of censoring material like that, which is not surprising because we're on the receiving end ...most of the violence is done to women ...'
Smith analyses contemporary media and follows the descent of the continuum of popular culture. One of her targets this year has been 'guy radio', including but not limited to shock-jock Howard Stern and the new 'Mojo' guy radio station in Toronto. 'Now the other stations which are after the male demographic are picking up that whole degrading women thing', she said.
Said Lt. Col. Grossman: 'The guy radio is just a spin-off, it's just a symptom; somebody has syphilis and a chancre appears on their face. The chancre needs to be treated but the chancre is simply a symptom of a disease that was contracted years ago. There's something deep in the heart of our society that needs to be treated, and Howard Stern is just a symptom of the disease.'
The genesis of activism
It was following the Montreal massacre of female engineering students in 1989 that Smith began to put two and two together, recognizing the 'amping up' of the violence quotient against women. 'Things that are put on the market now would have horrified people (back in the 1960s),' she said. 'That's part of the desensitization thing, and also creating an appetite. You feed that appetite at your peril. Because there is an appetite for pain and suffering in human beings - what an insane concept to feed that appetite!'
Smith has also lodged a formal complaint against the licensing of the new digital channel ScreamTV set for launch this fall. Primarily a movie channel, Scream TV will also develop original horror series and magazine shows that explore the horror phenomenon. In a media violence primer Smith compiled for reference and distribution, the development of violent horror films is discussed. '(The) most extreme form of film violence, the splatter or slasher genre, was launched in 1963...This form of `entertainment' features people, primarily teenage girls and young women, being tortured, dismembered, disembowelled, beheaded, with various construction tools ... hence the term 'splatter'. The violence almost always takes place while the victims are naked or wearing skimpy lingerie.
'Former FBI agent Robert Ressler and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Elliot Dietz, both experts on serial murder, believe these films have helped fuel the increase in serial killing because of the explicit linking of sex with torture and murder in films targeted at a teenage audience. Dietz put it this way: `If a mad scientist wanted to find a way to raise a generation of sexual sadists in America, he could hardly do better at our present state of knowledge than to try to expose a generation of teenage boys to films showing women mutilated in the midst of a sexy scene.'' It also was Smith who laid a formal complaint against Bell ExpressVu with the CRTC and with the Toronto Police, for broadcasting X-rated pornography across Canada by satellite.
'Pious pornographers' on the Fifth Estate
In March, just before the U.S. FTC follow-up report, CBC's fifth estate broadcast an expose on X-rated pornography distributed by Bell ExpressVu. Introducing the program, host Hana Gartner said, 'Without any real public debate, porn has gone legit in Canada, respectable companies are making huge profits while distancing themselves from the product. Call them The Pious Pornographers.'
Later in the program, Gartner said: 'Pornography has gone from the back street to Bay Street, a multibillion dollar industry that is seducing some pretty big corporations with cable and satellite subsidiaries ... (For) $15.95 a day, Bell ExpressVu will deliver your fantasy; anal sex, sadomasochistic sex, group sex, penetration, ejaculation - nothing is left to your imagination.' Bell ExpressVu was offering True Blue and Extasy, two triple-X-rated pornography channels out of Colorado, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Bell ExpressVu pulled the channels that night - after nearly a year of operation - and posted an apology on their Web site. ExpressVu president David McLennan said on the site '(We) purchased blocks of programming directly from the owners of those channels. The supplier agreed to comply with all Canadian laws and with programming standards which met the stringent requirements of our Policy. But it appears that these requirements were not met.'
The process of protest
Smith filed detailed, analytical formal complaints with the CRTC, with the Toronto Police Services, with the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, with the Ministry of the Attorney General for Ontario, among others. She requested an investigation by the police of 'the broadcast by Bell ExpressVu of material that contravenes the Criminal Code obscenity law.'
Smith received a reply from Unit Commander Roy Pilkington, of the Metro Toronto Police sexual assault squad, where the complaint ended up. That reply stated that the department had asked for a legal opinion from Assistant Crown Attorney David Butt, an expert in Canada's obscenity laws. 'It is the opinion of Mr. Butt that the materials allegedly distributed by Bell ExpressVu are obscene under the Criminal Code. However, it is his opinion, in all the circumstances, that at present it would not be in the public interest to prosecute Bell ExpressVu.'
In an interview, Pilkington said, 'I don't think there's any doubt that the movies that were being shown were pornographic or would have met that standard.' Discussing the issues involved, He said 'I'm a policeman, they're the legal experts.' For a police officer to lay a charge against the advice of a Crown prosecutor makes executing the case very difficult for any prosecutor who takes on that case. The sexual assault squad, lacking in resources, is not investigating whether cable operators or any other broadcaster is handling the same kind of programming, since it is very much focussed currently on child pornography on the Internet.
In response to Smith's complaint, the CRTC's Forrest Greene stated: 'Under the Broadcasting Act, broadcasters are responsible for the programming that they air ... Our role, as a federal government regulatory agency, is to regulate programming standards.' Greene did state, however, that the CRTC has launched an investigation into the broadcast of the two American porn channels.
'You've got to look at this from the context of what the Crown is going to actually be able to prove - I can see why they might look at this and say, this is a difficult thing ... to be able to prove. From my perspective that just points out all the more why it is appropriately a regulatory matter,' said Scott Newark, vice-chair and special counsel for the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime. '(The) Martians didn't sort of come down and slip it onto the cameras or the screens at night. It was either because of negligence - not paying attention to sufficient detail or not simply giving a damn that people ran this stuff. That's what a regulatory body should deal with ...I think the complaint about Bell ExpressVu is as much about the CRTC as it is about Bell ExpressVu, because if the CRTC fails to take regulatory action, what's the point of having the CRTC?'
Newark described his own letter of complaint to the CRTC, stating that 'this is as much about the appropriateness of self-regulation as it is about the individual complaint.' '(The) drive for self-regulation I would say is borne out of self-interest,' Newark observed. '(But) theoretically, it's not self-regulating. We do have a public body called the CRTC that has a very clear mandate, that has very clear rules and frankly has very clear authority.'
Like a number of those familiar with legal territory, Newark dismisses the free speech argument in relation to violent pornography. There is no absolute guarantee of free speech in Canada - such as yelling fire in a crowded theatre or uttering threats.
'They're criminal offences,' he states. 'Define circumstances where we can prove you knew what you were doing with criminally obscene material, we prosecute you for it ... I don't have any hesitation in drawing that line, and if we could prove that they knew what they were doing, I'd prosecute them to the ends of the earth.'
The technology fix: the engineer ....
While the research continues, litigation proceeds, and scientific study refines further the impacts of violent video images on society, broadcasters on both sides of the border have been debating content codes that would define categories of television content. At the same time, a Canadian electrical engineer has developed V-chip technology that combines hardware and software to block programming according to rating codes and content categories. And a Canadian forklift driver and mother of four has invented a closed caption/audio monitor technology that eliminates profanity from an audio track and in closed captioning.
Tim Collings is a professor at the Technical University of British Columbia. The Montreal massacre in 1989 got Collings, at that time teaching at an engineering school, thinking. He began to look at the effect of television violence on people's behaviour.
'It piqued my curiosity because as an engineer, you never get sociological problems presented to you, you get technical ones,' he said. Collings began wondering if television could be used to 'do something a little more intelligent,' a system that broadcasters could use to identify content and that viewers could use to program their own viewing diet.
Two years after the Montreal massacre Collings had a working prototype. He developed a standard for embedding extended data services onto line 21 of the TV signal's vertical blanking interval.
Collings worked with Shaw Cable in Western Canada, with the U.S. Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA), with the Electronic Industry Association (EIA), and the result is the V-Chip television encoder, launched in Canada at this year's Canadian Cable Television Association annual convention. The V-chip technology has been in use in the U.S. since January, 2000.
While the V- in V-chip is commonly thought to stand for 'violence', Collings in fact conceived of it as a 'viewer-control' chip. Tri-Vision, a Toronto-based manufacturer which licenses and sells the V-chip technology, is also marketing a set-top box incorporating this technology called V- Gis, which originates from the Greek word aegis or shield or fortress.
... and the forklift driver ynventor
Diane LaPierre is a mother of four boys in Calgary. Using television captioning to help one of her sons to read, she was appalled when he began learning how to spell swear words from the captions on PG13-rated programs.
'The government is rating these shows for my kids but there's still that profanity in there,' she said. 'I thought, there's just got to be a way to make a little magic box that's going to detect that profanity coming through and, if I've selected those words, delete it.'
LaPierre was a forklift operator in a warehouse for a large retailer. Working with a Calgary engineering firm, she spent a year researching with the Canadian cable industry, the captioning industry and the Alberta Microelectronics Centre in Calgary, learning audio and video technology and technical details of captioning technology.
Her research and development was successful. Global Cable Inc. (GCI), a U.S.-based manufacturer, picked up LaPierre's technology and incorporated it into their cable converter, securing world-wide rights. Plans are for this technology also to be incorporated into television sets, as is Collings' V-chip technology, with the first set-top boxes slated for world-wide commercial launch in September this year at a cost of $50-$70 per box. LaPierre's list of 350 words can be customizable according to personal taste. Plans also include distribution of the CC+ box to all schools which will allow presentation of a wider range of video material, previously unsuitable because of profanity.
'It really is teaching our kids that the violence is okay, that sex is definitely okay,' she said. 'It just seems to be coming out more and more in prime-time television and it's time for us to take control of what they're broadcasting by taming it down ... It's not just for kids, there's a lot of people offended by some sort of language.'
The ratings game
'Canada is using a slightly different rating system than the U.S.,' Collings said. 'That's actually why it took five years, a lot longer than it should have. There was a lot of back and forth on the rating system.'
There was also a requirement in Canada for encoding separate French and English ratings. And Canadian broadcasters were not prepared to start encoding programming until the V-chip system was available in television sets.
The first rating system Collings tested was comprehensive with a substantial amount of information on program content. U.S. broadcasters declined such a comprehensive system, as did Canadian broadcasters.
'We had a violence category that was constituted by different levels of violence and they were concerned, I think, they didn't want to identify the specifics,' said Collings. 'They didn't want to scare away their advertisers.' A simpler system was approved by the CRTC, but rejected by the FCC. In an ironic twist, the U.S. system now more closely resembles the comprehensive ratings system Collings originally developed, while the Canadian ratings system is more simplistic. Both are confusing.
In the U.S. the controversy over confusing ratings has led to calls for a new rating system that would encompass movies, television, music and video games, and an independent oversight group to monitor it. The controversy has also led to calls for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to regulate the current ratings system. Predictably, the Motion Picture Association of America has rejected this suggestion, and has threatened to scrap their voluntary systems altogether rather than face federal scrutiny of content codes.
Self-regulation and the future of advertising
The development of V-chip and CC+ technology combined with the long-awaited program ratings system proves, prima facie, the existence of a problem with television programming. These developments would never have come to pass otherwise. The presence of increasing amounts of violence and sexuality necessitated the development of both ratings and blocking technology.
All these developments get in the way of the primary business relationship of television, which is between broadcasters and advertisers - NOT between broadcasters and viewers. Around the world, business in all areas has increasingly pushed for the implementation of self-regulation.
'The drive for self-regulation is borne out of self-interest,' said Scott Newark bluntly. 'I don't think most people are in the broadcasting business for anything other than profit - that's fair ball.' However, he observed, the efficacy of public regulatory institutions and the complaints processes instituted as a result may in fact make it easier for big business to do what it wants.
CRTC Acting Chair David Colville has stated that market forces, not governments, should regulate business activity in the communications revolution. The Commission is moving towards a market-based approach, he told the CCTA conference in June, and Colville has said his objective is to 'put himself out of a job'.
This is where the notion of self-regulation founders on the rocks of what Lt. Col. Grossman bluntly calls 'the universal human conspiracy of greed.' Ratcheting up the violence quotient in visual media has been seen as the only way to retain and increase audiences.
But in fact, ratcheting up violence and sexuality may be having exactly the opposite effect. In a research project released at the end of June, a study from the University of Iowa led by psychology professor Dr. Brad Bushman has revealed that memory for TV commercials is lower in programs that contain violent and sexual content.
In a research study involving 324 men and women age 18-54, participants remembered advertising 39% better within programs of neutral content than programs with violent and sexual content. Professor Bushman said, 'Violence and sex impaired memory for males and females of all ages, and for people who liked and did not like to watch televised violence and sex ... The sex and violence registers much more strongly than the messages the advertisers are hoping to deliver.'
It may be the ultimate irony in television programming that the sex and violence designed to sell soap and cars in fact only sells sex and violence.