The Market for Television Violence

By Hamilton, James T. | National Forum, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The Market for Television Violence


Hamilton, James T., National Forum


Fights. Shootings. Killings. If you surf across channels during a normal weekday evening, you are likely to find violent stories unfolding. The violence may seem senseless or aimless, even gratuitous. But the use of violent images is not a random event on television. Violent images are commodities whose quantity and quality are driven by market forces. In a sense, violence on television gives some viewers what they want. Yet because the consumption of these images can lead to harm down the road, the market for television violence can generate costs that do not show up on company balance sheets.

Television violence is at its core a problem of pollution. Programmers and advertisers use violent content to target television's most valuable demographic segment, viewers aged eighteen to thirty-four. The executives who schedule violence to garner ratings and profits do not take into account the full impact of their actions on society. Research shows that television violence increases levels of aggression, fear, and desensitization among some who consume it. The strongest effects are on the youngest viewers. Children are not the target of advertisers on most violent programs, but their exposure to violent images can lead to social damages not factored into decisions about when to air programs and where to draw the line on content.

RESPONSES TO CRITICISM OF TV VIOLENCE

In writing a book called Channeling Violence on the market for violent programming, I (understandably) found few people in the entertainment industry willing to agree that their products generate cultural pollution. Media officials often deflect criticisms of their programs with a standard set of responses, which I came to view as the "Top Five Reasons Why TV Violence is Not a Problem."

1. We Use Violence on Television to Tell, not Sell, Stories

Television executives link the use of violence to narrative needs. In hearings before Congress, network executives have denied that they use violence to earn ratings. Yet I found in my research on programming strategies that every channel type uses violence to gain viewers:

* During the sweeps periods, the four major broadcast networks were much more likely to air movies that deal with murder, focus on tales of family crime, and feature family crime or murder stories based on real-life incidents. Nearly a third of network movies during sweeps periods dealt with murder. The Fox Network, which often aired movies starting at 8 P.M., increased its use of violent movies from 42 percent to 84 percent during sweeps.

* When ABC aired Monday Night Football, the basic cable channel TBS dropped its use of violent movies on Monday nights. The percentage of violent movies declined on this channel from 92 percent to 65 percent of the films shown. When football season ended and male viewers were up for grabs, the violent movies returned.

* When Seinfeld dominated ratings on Thursday evenings, HBO had a strategy known internally as "Testosterone Thursday," in which it programmed low-quality violent films at 9 P.M. to attract male viewers uninterested in Seinfeld. These strategic uses of violent programs all contradict the frequent claims that violence is not used to attract viewers.

2. Violence on Television Is A Reflection of Violence in Society

Analyzing data across the country on local news content, I found that the percentage of stories devoted to crime and the percentage of lead stories dealing with crime were not related to the crime rate in a city. Rather, it was audience interest in crime, reflected by ratings for shows such as Cops in the market, that predicted the degree to which local news directors focused on crime in their newscasts. The stronger the audience interest in reality police-show programming, the more likely newscasts in an area were to focus on crime.

3. Images on Television Do Not Influence Behavior

Social science research indicates that violent images are more likely to be imitated if they go unpunished, show little pain or suffering, and involve attractive perpetrators. …

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