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Message To Reduce TV Violence Becoming Louder, Clearer

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WASHINGTON--This time, Congress may really mean business when it talks about reducing television violence.

There is a clear sense on Capitol Hill and among entertainment-industry lobbyists and observers that some version of legislation addressing the issue has a strong chance for passage in the current Congress.

"I think this year is a turning point,'' said George Gerbner, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "Whether it is for better or worse, I don't know.''

"The general climate is highly charged,'' added Mr. Gerbner, a longtime researcher of television violence. "The fear the issue generates creates the political opportunity to exploit it.''

Congress first expressed concern about television violence more than 40 years ago, and the issue has been debated sporadically ever since. At the latest hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee last month, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., noted that his committee alone has met to discuss the issue 16 times since 1969.

"Despite our best efforts, the amount of violence on television continues to grow,'' Mr. Hollings said at the Oct. 20 hearing.

The issue has received unprecedented attention this year: six major hearings before Congressional committees; an announcement in June by the major broadcast networks that they would start a parental-warning system; an industrywide conference on screen violence in Los Angeles last summer; and the introduction of at least seven bills in Congress designed to curb or monitor television violence.

Underlying the debate is a special concern over the impact of television violence on children.

"The time for further action is here,'' Catherine A. Belter, the vice president for legislative activity of the National PTA, told the Commerce Committee last month. "Parents around the country are demanding quick and decisive moves to reduce the amount of violence on TV and keep the pressure on the industry to provide better family and children's programming.''

Measures Being Weighed

Among the measures being considered by Congress are:

The "children's protection from violent programming act,'' sponsored by Mr. Hollings and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii. Perhaps the strongest measure being considered, it would ban violent programming during hours when children are likely to make up a large part of the viewing audience.

A bill by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both North Dakota Democrats, that would require the Federal Communications Commission to compile a "violence report card'' at least four times a year.

A bill by Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., that would mandate warning labels for violence and unsafe gun practices in programming.

A proposal by Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., that would mandate the installation of a "V-chip'' on all new television sets that would allow parents to block reception of violent shows.

Other bills call for a Presidential commission on television violence, would require the F.C.C. to levy fines when violence rules are violated, and would create a toll-free violence hot line at the commission.

Attorney General Janet Reno intensified the debate by several notches last month when she told Senator Hollings's committee that unless the television industry acted immediately to reduce television violence on its own, the Clinton Administration would work with Congress to develop a federal law that would accomplish that objective.

"Television violence and the development of our youth ... go to the heart of our society's values,'' she said. "The best solutions lie with industry officials, parents, and educators, and I don't relish the prospect of government action.''

"But if immediate voluntary steps are not taken and deadlines established, government should respond, and respond immediately,'' she said.

The Attorney General created a furor among broadcasters and First Amendment experts by asserting that three of the pending bills--the Hollings-Inouye measure that would ban violent programming during children's viewing hours, the violence-report-card bill, and the warning-label requirement--would pass constitutional muster.

"The regulation of violence is constitutionally permissible,'' she said.

Robert Peck, the legislative counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, took issue with the Attorney General.

"It's one of the most fundamental principles of First Amendment case law that you cannot discriminate on the basis of subject matter or content of speech,'' he said last week. "All of these bills are directed toward content--violent speech. Violent speech is protected speech.''

Violence on the Wane?

The current debate comes at a time when, in the view of some researchers and observers, violence on the major networks' shows has been toned down in recent years.

The most recent study by the Cultural Indicators project at the University of Pennsylvania, released last summer, found that the frequency of violent scenes per hour is about half of what it was in 1990 for prime-time network dramatic shows.

"There has been a slight dip in violence this year,'' Mr. Gerbner said.

But many critics remain troubled by the increasingly realistic gore and violence on movies aired not just on the major broadcast networks, but on independent television stations and on cable channels. The debate is also charged by incidents in which youths apparently have imitated what they have seen on the screen.

In one such widely reported case, a child in Ohio died in a fire that some blamed on the MTV: Music Television show "Beavis and Butt-head.'' The girl's brother reportedly was experimenting with matches in imitation of the cartoon characters.

Representatives of the television industry have repeatedly argued that they are taking responsible steps to reduce the level of violence.

"We have heard the concerns voiced by our viewers, the academics, and by you and your colleagues, and we have taken action,'' Howard Stringer, the president of the CBS Broadcast Group, told Senator Hollings last month.

Martin Franks, CBS's vice president in Washington, said the network has done just what Congress has asked for over the past year: reduce violence in programming and add parental warnings.

"We're frustrated because people are asking us to do more without any understanding of what we have done,'' he said last week.

No action has been taken on any of the pending bills. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., who has been a Congressional leader on the violence issue, has urged his colleagues to give the entertainment industry until Jan. 1 to establish its own "advisory office on television violence.'' The office would track progress in reducing "glamorized violence'' and report the results publicly, Mr. Simon said last month.

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