Critical Issues in TV Production

Violence in TV and Film

Does the violence on TV and in films contribute to violence inviolence2.jpg society?

This question has been debated for many years.  During that time some 2,500 books and articles have been written on the effects of TV and film violence on human behavior. 

In this article we're going to summarize some the latest thinking on this subject.

Canada was one of the first countries to extensively research this issue.  It was partly as a result of what they found that some engineers in that country devised the "V-Chip."

As you may recall, the V-Chip allows parents to lock out TV programming they consider objectionable to their children.

Although the concern in Canada was primarily about violence (hence the V-chip), in the United States there is also great concern about sexual content--probably more than in most other industrialized societies.   Hence, the V-chip can be programmed to screen out both violence and sex.

The issue of sex is discussed elsewhere at these sites, so here we'll focus on the issue of TV and film violence. 


Cause-Effect Proof

Studies done in both the United States and Canada have shown a positive relationship between early exposure to TV violence and physical aggressiveness in later life. 

Even so, a clear cause-effect relationship is complicated by the fact that children are typically exposed to many stimuli as they grow up--many of which could play a role in later behavior. 

For example, during a child's life you can't discount the role of such things as violent video games, or changes in social values or urban living conditions.

If you eat something that you have not tried before and immediately get sick, you will probably assume there's a direct relationship between the two events.

And if at some later date you forget about your first experience and eat the same thing again--and immediately get sick again, you can be fairly sure that whatever you ate makes you sick. 

No rocket science here, just clear cause and effect.  

Unfortunately, the cause and effect in many other areas of life are not as readily apparent.

A few decades ago you would see doctors in TV commercials endorsing a particular brand of cigarettes. And many medical doctors smoked. 

Not today. 

Today the evidence is clear: smoking is the number one cause of preventable heath problems and shortened life spans.

Although in the interest of profits cigarette manufacturers may have suppressed evidence for some time linking smoking and health problems,  eventually the cause-effect relationship became obvious to anyone who wanted fully investigate the facts.

Unlike the cause and effect in the example of your eating something and immediately getting sick, the effects of cigarette smoking aren't immediately apparent.  It is only years later that many smokers develop lung cancer, heart problems, emphysema, impotency problems, etc. 

In the same way--after looking at years of accumulated data--we're now recognizing a relationship between violence in the media and social problems. An excellent summary of much of the research and its consequences can be found in the book Visual Intelligence--Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication by Ann Marie Seward Barry.

Violence and TV Ratings

It's well known that TV violence holds an attraction for most viewers and this attraction translates into ratings and profits.  Because of this, many in the media have been reluctant to admit that media violence is in any way responsible for violence in our society.

If it weren't for the ratings and profits involved, producers would undoubtedly be much more willing to acknowledge the harm in TV and film violence--and do something about it. 

Instead, we have such things as the American Medical Association report which says that in homes with premium cable channels or a VCR children in the United States typically witness 32,000 murders and 40,000 attempted murders by the time they reach the age of 18.

After many high school students died in a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in April of 1999, many people were quick to blame the media.  Violent video games and a well-known film were seen as contributing factors. Millions of  young people are exposed to both throughout their lives without going on a murderous rampage.  But when you add extreme anger, easy access to guns, and an indifferent and amoral attitude toward the lives of others, the results can be very different.

In 1992, TV Guide commissioned a study of a typical 18-hour TV broadcast day to determine levels of violence. The networks and the more popular cable channels were monitored for "purposeful, overt, deliberate behavior involving physical force or weapons against other individuals."

There were 1,846 acts of violence that broke down this way.



promos for TV shows




toy commercials


music videos


commercials for films


TV dramas




tabloid reality shows




soap operas


In looking at the role of the broadcast outlets in the equation TV mogul Ted Turner said: "They're guilty of murder.  We all are--me too."

The Effects of TV and Film Violence

There are many problems in linking media violence with violence in society.  First, only a small percent of those who watch violence are responsible for violent acts.

Most of us are seemingly unaffected by it.

Even though we can't establish a simple, direct, cause-and-effect relationship between media violence and violence in our society, we can draw some conclusions from the data.

Studies show that people who watch a lot of TV violence not only behave more aggressively, but are more prone to hold attitudes that favor violence and aggression as a way of solving conflicts. These viewers also tend to be less trusting of people and more prone to see the world as a hostile place.

An extensive study in five Massachusetts communities found a relationship between viewing media violence and the acceptance of sexual assault, violence and alcohol use.

Studies also show that media violence has a desensitizing effect on viewers.

As a result, specific levels of violence becomes more acceptable over time. It then takes more and more graphic violence to shock (and hold) an audience.  

History gives us many examples. To cite just one, the Roman Circuses started out being a rather tame form of entertainment.  But in an effort to excite audiences, violence and rape were introduced in the arena settings.  Subsequently, as audiences got used to seeing these things, they then demanded more and more, until the circuses eventually became extremely grotesque and barbarian.

Next, media violence is typically unrealistic, simplistic, glorified and even presented as humorous.

The "bang, bang, you're dead" sanitized scenario that we so often see on TV or in films communicates nothing of the reality of death or dying.  

It is only when we see death first-hand or have a loved one killed that we realize that death in film or on TV bears little resemblance to what we experience in real life.

The sound of gunshots on TV and in films is so different from real gunshots that people often fail to recognize them for what they are in real life.

Next, the consequences of killing, especially by the "good guys," are seldom shown.   Violence and killing are commonly depicted as a ready and even acceptable solution to problems.  To put it simplistically, problems are solved when the "bad guys" are all dead.

The unrealistic element of TV and film violence seems to come as a surprise to some.  A young gang member who was admitted to a New York ER after being shot seemed amazed to find that getting shot was not only traumatic but excruciatingly painful.  He was  blaming the doctors and nurses for his pain, since on TV getting shot didn't seem to be all that big of a deal.

Summary and Conclusions

We've all heard about the copycat crimes and movie inspired violence where a mentally disturbed individual sees a violent act on TV or in film and then acts it out in real life.  But we now know that even for normal people violence in film or on TV is associated with a number of negative personal and social traits.

We also have clear indications that the long-term effects of this exposure will lead to increasingly-undesirable social consequences.

In looking over the evidence of the increasing levels of film and TV violence it is taking to satisfy views, and its effects on society, David Puttnam, a highly successful film director, simply observed, "We are destroying ourselves."  

As TV producers our problem is in dealing with the apparent conflict between the negative effects of TV violence and positive program ratings. 

So what's the answer?

First, we have to take a look at how violence is used.   Eliminating all violence from the media is not in keeping with the reality of the human condition. Violence has always been with us and probably always will be.

But the  32,000 murders and 40,000 attempted murders over 18 years which we cited earlier is clearly unrealistic and exploitative.

Violence is being used as a superficial way of grabbing and holding (and exploiting) an audience.

Many TV and film producers have elected to "take a higher road" and not rely on gratuitous violence to capture and hold an audience. This route typically results in more accolades for their work and more personal respect from the creative community. 

One of the most successful television series in history, Star Trek, was created, produced and (largely) written by Gene Roddenberry, whose primary message was peaceful coexistence.

The series started in 1966 and its various incarnations continue today.   The series has won scores of humanitarian awards.  Colleges have even offered English courses that focus on the series. Anyone who has followed Star Trek knows that (under Roddenberry) gratuitous violence  was never necessary.

We can also point to scores of noteworthy films over the decades that have achieved great distinction without having to depend on violence.

But the higher road is often the more difficult one.  It takes talent to engage an audience through the strength of your storytelling and production expertise.

In the end Gene Roddenberry was proud of the message he delivered week after week to millions of people around the world. 

Earlier, during testimony before Congress, Roddenberry had said:

[Television] is the most dangerous
force in the world today.

Shortly before his death he was asked what he would like to have as an epitaph.  Roddenberry said, just say this:

He loved humanity.

Based on what their work says about their true feelings, I wonder how many TV and film producers can say the same today? 

As a footnote to this topic, there is evidence to show that commercials in violent TV shows are not as effective in selling products as commercials in other types of TV programming.

  A well documented study on this by the
American Psychological Association
is at


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