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Network executives evade questions about violent TV, social ills

Published: Friday, Jan. 18 2013 11:35 a.m. MST

Twice a year members of the Television Critics Association gather in Pasadena, Calif., for a “press tour” that lasts about two weeks and includes interviews with network executives and presentations about the new season of shows.

The winter 2013 press tour concluded Wednesday. In light of the ongoing national debates about media violence and gun control, perhaps the most interesting development to emerge from the fortnight was the way in which network chiefs repeatedly evaded critics’ questions about a possible connection linking media violence to real-life tragedies like last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“Does TV violence share blame for the series of recent shooting tragedies?” USA Today entertainment columnist Gary Levin wrote Tuesday. “The medium's role is on the minds of critics gathered (in Pasadena) for a semi-annual meeting. And as President Obama prepares to unveil a comprehensive gun-safety plan Wednesday after Vice President Biden's meetings with entertainment executives as part of his task force on gun violence, TV executives pointed the finger elsewhere.”

Indeed, on Jan. 7 NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt responded to a question about NBC’s imminent launch of the new drama “Hannibal” that centers on a serial killer. “I’m not a psychologist; I’m not sure you can make the leap from a show about serial killers causing the problem with violence in our country,” Greenblatt said, as reported by the Washington Post. “There are many other factors, from mental illness to guns.”

When a TV critic called into question Greenblatt’s credibility in defending violent media by pointing out Greenblatt had led subscription channel Showtime when the ultra-violent series “Dexter” premiered, the NBC chief responded, “I think (CBS’) ‘Criminal Minds’ is worse than ‘Dexter’ ever was.”

(Speaking of "Criminal Minds," actor Mandy Patinkin told New York magazine in September that “The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do 'Criminal Minds' in the first place. I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality. ... I’m not making a judgment on the taste [of people who watch crime procedurals], but I’m concerned about the effect it has. Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.")

The day following Greenblatt's comments, Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly’s took his turn in front of the critics. Reilly defended the upcoming release of “The Following,” a new Fox procedural filled to the brim with sadistic, violent crime. “Not to be defensive about it, but we are putting on an excellent thriller,” Reilly said, Entertainment Weekly reported. “We are not glorifying a killer. … When you’re doing a thriller, you have to compete on this level of intensity.”

In light of these types of "Hollywood bears minimal responsibility for societal consequences" comments by influential executives like Greenblatt and Reilly, USA Today columnist Michael Medved published a column Wednesday with the headline "Hollywood's Gun Hypocrisy" that rebutted the claim that visual media is generally incapable of exerting meaningful influence on real-world behavior.

"To understand the nature of media influence, consider the example of television advertising," Medved wrote. "Luxury car companies such as Lexus and Audi spend tens of millions of dollars on commercials despite the fact that 99 percent of those who see these ads could never even consider the purchase of such expensive cars. Nonetheless, enough people across the country will feel swayed by the imagery on TV messages that they end up buying spiffy new rides. It's that influence at the margins that can change a company's bottom line, justifying very smart corporate honchos in their massive investment in media advertising."

Returning to the topic of the television critics' press tour, some postive news actually emerged from the confab: At least one network is earnestly seeking answers about the vicious, violent outbursts like those in Columbine, Colo., and Newtown that continue to plague society. On Monday, the Associated Press reported about a PBS announcement that the public network “will air a series of programs under the umbrella title ‘After Newtown.’ The February series will ‘continue the public conversation’ on the topics of gun laws, mental illness and school security, PBS said. … PBS’ ‘After Newtown’ initiative airs Feb. 18 to 22.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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