Study Finds Violence Is Prevalent in Children's TV Shows

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The final report of a massive three-year study of television violence concludes that six out of 10 shows contain depictions of violence and that many children's programs contain violent portrayals which pose a special risk of promoting aggressive behavior among young children.

The findings of the 350-page National Television Violence Study conflict with a recent study financed by the major broadcast networks that showed a steady decline in violent programming on network television.

The newest report is the last of three annual installments underwritten by the National Cable Television Association, based in Washington. Its centerpiece is an analysis of 2,750 shows on network, independent, and public-broadcasting stations as well as basic and "premium" cable channels, conducted by seven researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"The study shows conclusively that, across all genres and channels of television, when violence is portrayed, its likely effect is to contribute to the learning of aggression," the report concludes.

The UC-Santa Barbara analysis focused on entertainment shows such as dramas, situation comedies, movies, and cartoons. In general, the study concludes, most of the violence depicted is sanitized and goes without punishment. Only 5 percent to 6 percent of violent scenes are explicit or graphic, but a gun is shown in one out of four violent depictions.

The report expresses special concern about the way violence is depicted in some children's programming, especially cartoons. Many cartoons include violence that poses a high risk of stimulating aggression in children, the report maintains. These "high risk" portrayals include a perpetrator who is considered attractive, violence that appears justified, and unpunished violence with minimal consequences to the victim.

"Younger children have difficulty distinguishing televised fantasy from reality, and are therefore at increased risk of imitating cartoon violence," said Barbara J. Wilson, a professor of communication at the university and one of the authors.

Broadcast Response

The Washington-based National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the broadcast networks and stations, questioned the findings. Broadcasters pointed to a University of California, Los Angeles, study released in January, which concluded that most graphic violence on television is found on cable channels.

"The undeniable fact is that the vast majority of violence on television is on pay cable, not on free, over-the-air television," said John Earnhardt, a spokesman for the NAB.

He also cited federal statistics showing that most categories of violent crime have dropped across the United States.

"If [the researchers'] suppositions are true, why are violent acts down?" Mr. Earnhardt said. "Their theory doesn't really hold."

Both research projects were prompted by concern in Congress in recent years about television violence.

As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress mandated that new televisions be manufactured with the so-called V-chip, which allows parents to block out programming rated violent or otherwise unsuitable for children.

Another part of the cable-sponsored study analyzed the television industry's voluntary implementation of the TV-content ratings system, which went into effect last year.

The study by Joanne Cantor and Amy Nathanson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison gives broadcasters and cable channels credit for "swiftly implementing" the parental-guideline system, which includes ratings such as TVY for shows suitable for all children.

In addition, all the major networks except for NBC have added content indicators to the ratings to signal whether a show includes violence, adult situations, or sex.

The report calls on the networks to add oral announcements of a show's rating in addition to the small graphic that appears in the corner of the screen.

The report contains two other parts:

  • A study of anti-handgun-violence public-service announcements, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that those depicting the consequences of violence are more effective in influencing young people than those that do not.
  • An analysis of "reality" programming by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that this genre, which includes daytime talk shows and programs such as "Cops," to be less violent than entertainment television.

Copies of the report are available for $39.95 each from Sage Publications Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91320-2218. Phone: (805) 499-9774.

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