Curbing TV Violence ANALYSIS. Conference Left Unexplored the Idea of an Ethics Code as an Answer

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TELEVISION violence is bad for children. Moreover, TV violence has been found to contribute to violence on the street. But what should be done about TV violence?

Research scientists engaged in studies over the last 30 years are convinced that the link between TV violence and on-the-street violence is strong and clear. But how to curb the violence children see on television without infringing on First Amendment guarantees of free speech?

A historic conference on television violence last week in Beverly Hills, Calif., may be the start of big changes. Industry officials, writers, directors, programmers, and producers met to hear and reply to some of the leading social scientists in television violence research. But the most significant idea of the day was dropped inadvertently and never picked up - the idea of an ethics of television.

ABC News correspondent Jeff Greenfield moderated the two panels (academics, then media pros). Mr. Greenfield pointed out that TV violence has no constituency: Conservatives and liberals both hate it. More important, after four decades of television, "more and more Americans are convinced that some of what pours out of their screen is having a baleful influence on their children."

Despite the response of many television professionals who questioned the validity of the research and raised the specter of censorship, the fact is that violent TV shows are relatively easy to write, cheap to produce, and cross cultures easily. The TV people came across as self-protecting, defensive, and fearful.

The television industry has been put on notice by the United States Congress. Two bills introduced last week - one to federally control the level of violence, another to require circuits in TVs that would allow parents to "lock out" violent shows - put pressure on the industry to clean up the airwaves before Congress does it for them. At the conference luncheon, Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois told television figures that they had 60 days to make a good-faith effort toward solving the problem of violent television - or else.

Television is not simply a medium, it is an all-pervasive environment, pioneering researcher George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania says. Dr. Gerbner states, as does Leonard Eron of the University of Michigan - also interviewed - that many parents neglect their children. Many more work and cannot always supervise - one-third of American children come home to empty houses every afternoon. As a society, we reap what television sows, these two observers say.

Television professionals made valid points, too. Del Reisman, president of the Writers Guild of America West, says, "It's such a many layered problem: Cable, independent stations, networks - everyone has to get involved in the solution. …