A disconnect between violence and television

Network executives discuss programming in wake of shootings

By David Bauder

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15 2013 7:53 p.m. MST

ABC's Paul Lee

Rick Rowell, Rick Rowell

PASADENA, Calif. — If there's any soul-searching among top television executives about onscreen violence contributing to real-life tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting, it isn't readily apparent.

All say the horrors of Newtown and Aurora, Colo., rocked them. But during a series of meetings with reporters here over the last 10 days, none offered concrete examples of how it is changing what they put on the air, or if that is necessary.

"I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not sure you can make the leap (that) a show about serial killers has caused the sort of problems with violence in our country," said Robert Greenblatt, who put "Dexter" on the air when he ran Showtime and is now overseeing development of a series on the notorious creep Hannibal Lecter for NBC. "There are many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns."

All of those points were considered by Vice President Joe Biden in his recommendations to President Obama on ways to curb violence. When entertainment executives met with Biden in Washington last Friday, makers of blood-spurting video games like "Call of Duty" and "Mortal Kombat" dominated attention. In theaters, "Texas Chainsaw 3-D" dominated box office receipts during its first week.

Television's biggest influence is its omnipresence; the average American watches more than four hours of TV a day.

In recent days, only FX President John Landgraf said he was in favor of further study about any correlation between entertainment and real violence. Previous studies have been mixed.

Landgraf has sons ages 15, 12 and 9 and said he doesn't let them play video games in which the player is shooting.

Everything the entertainment industry does should be fair game in a discussion about violence, he said. But he pointed out that the zombie series "Walking Dead" and brutally violent "Sons of Anarchy" are both very popular in England and that country has far fewer gun murders than the United States. The availability of powerful assault weapons and ammunition are most responsible for the difference, he said.

The Newtown shooting was heartbreaking, said Paul Lee, ABC entertainment president. "We welcome the conversation as to how we as a culture can make sure that we don't let these events happen again," he said.

He said ABC has strong standards for what it broadcasts, stronger than its competitors.

"We talk about it all the time," he said. "We are storytellers. We have to tell stories that are vibrant and passionate, but we want to make sure that the stories that we tell are done with integrity, you know, there's no gratuitous action that goes out there, that it's driven through the stories and the characters, and that we have a moral compass in what we do."

The appetite for "Walking Dead" and "Texas Chainsaw 3-D" among young viewers is not lost on any TV executive, and bottom line pressure speaks most loudly to them. Broadcast networks feel a particular need to push the envelope when they see cable programs making noise with an ability to show more explicit scenes.

The same week that Lee talked about ABC's standards, the network's hit "Scandal" had a scene depicting waterboarding.

Fox has a highly anticipated series due later this month, "The Following," about a serial killer who recruits deadly disciples, and its gruesome scenes include a woman who commits suicide and a man set on fire at a coffee stand.

Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment chairman, said that given all of the media choices, the impact on real life is a broad and complex conversation. "It trivializes it to try and link it to television, or broadcast television in particular," he said.

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