PTC: Violent shows on broadcast now similar to cable

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PTC / Parents Television CouncilNew research from the Parents Television Council found that the volume and degree of violent content shown on broadcast and cable television are virtually indistinguishable; and that broadcast TV shows in the study consistently underrated graphically-violent content as appropriate for 14-year-old children, even though similar content on the cable networks was rated for mature audiences only.


Examining the most violent programming on broadcast and cable TV, the PTC found that: a) the most violent shows on broadcast TV have essentially similar levels of violence as the most violent cable TV shows, rendering untrue the popular assumption that broadcast TV is a “safer” media environment for children, b) viewers watching these violent TV shows on broadcast are exposed to guns or bladed weapons every 3 minutes, c) the TV ratings system is failing to protect children and families due to the fact that the broadcast networks are assigning a younger age rating than similarly violent programs on cable, and d) the violent situations on television programs run the gamut, including instances of child molestation, rape, mutilation/disfigurement, dismemberment, graphic killings and/or injuries by gunfire and stabbings, violent abductions, physical torture, cannibalism, burning flesh and suicide.

Said PTC President Tim Winter: “Those concerned about media violence and its effects on society should be extremely disturbed by the findings of this new research report,” especially since the “entertainment industry has done virtually nothing to reduce the flow of graphically violent media to children” nearly a year after the tragic events in Newtown, CT.

Based upon the PTC’s Entertainment Tracking System, PTC analysts identified scripted dramas on basic cable that contained the highest amount of violence and graphic violence during the 2012-2013 season. The list of shows included: American Horror Story (FX), The Walking Dead (AMC), Sons of Anarchy (FX), Breaking Bad (AMC), Copper (BBC America), Justified (FX), and Bullet in the Face (IFC). Cable violence data from the first 4 episodes of each show were compared to the first four episodes of the 2012-2013 season of the CBS TV-14-rated crime drama Criminal Minds. During the time of the initial data collection, Criminal Minds was viewed by many in the entertainment industry, as well as PTC, as the most violent show on broadcast television. Additionally, comparisons were made using the 7 most violent dramas on broadcast television during the current season (2013-2014). Shows included: Revolution (NBC), The Blacklist (NBC), Supernatural (CW), Criminal Minds (CBS), Sleepy Hollow (Fox), CSI (CBS), and Law & Order: SVU (NBC).

Of note, according to the TV Parental Guidelines, a V-descriptor with a TV-14 rating indicates the program may contain intense violence. A V-descriptor with a TV-MA rating indicates the program may contain graphic violence.

For purposes of this study “violence” was defined as: The intent to harm; destruction of property; accidental violence; or self-harm. The study does not include mild violence such as holding a person to prevent a fight or someone hitting a wall lightly in anger and without damage, etc.

Graphic violence was defined in the present study as the depiction of especially vivid, brutal and realistic acts of violence. The distinction between violence and graphic violence was made based upon the presence of the clear and obvious/uncensored depiction of a violent act. In order to qualify for the “graphic” designation, the violence depicted must generally have been of a particularly unmitigated and unshielded nature. In all cases, it was the explicitness of the violence and the injury inflicted which resulted in a scene being labeled “graphic.”

More findings:

•      Every broadcast show in the study contained violent depictions that qualified for the label “graphic” violence. The shows include: Revolution (TV-14), The Blacklist (TV-14), Supernatural (TV-14), Criminal Minds (TV-14), Sleepy Hollow (TV-14), CSI (TV-14), and Law & Order: SVU (TV-14).

•      The following forms of violence comprised 77% of the violent and graphically violent depictions that aired during primetime broadcast on TV-14 rated shows: Child molestation, rape, mutilation/disfigurement, dismemberment, graphic killings and/or injuries by gunfire and stabbings, violent abductions, physical torture, cannibalism, burning flesh, suicide, beatings, guns and bladed weapons that were depicted but not used, and dead bodies.

•      Although every TV-14 show in the study contained graphic violence and included a V-descriptor for “intense” violence, not one TV-14 show was rated to warn parents of the presence of “graphic” violence.

•      Almost 40% of all graphic violence in the study aired on broadcast television (37%).

•      Based upon shows included in the study, there was only a 6% difference between the amount of violence on cable shows compared to shows that aired on broadcast television (N=1482 and 1392 respectively).

•      There were a total of 512 guns and bladed weapons depicted across all the broadcast shows examined in the study. Almost 70% of those were guns (67%).

•      On broadcast television a bladed weapon or gun appeared on screen every 3 minutes. These calculations only represent when a new weapon entered the scene. The numbers do not account for the length of time a weapon remained on screen.

•      Children watching 4 episodes of Criminal Minds (during the fall of 2012) were exposed to an average of 52.8 acts of violence per episode or 1 act of violence every 1 minute and 8 seconds.

•      Children watching 4 episodes of Revolution (during the fall of 2013) were exposed to an average of 91.5 acts of violence per episode. That is equivalent to a child seeing one act of violence every 39 seconds.

•      Revolution (a broadcast show rated TV-14) had more violence than all of the TV-MA cable shows in the study. (NOTE: During the data collection phase of the study The Walking Dead was rated TV-14. Since that time the network has rated new episodes TV-MA.)

•      Revolution aired more violence than 6 of the 7 most violent shows on cable and more graphic violence than 4 of the 7 most violent shows on cable.

TV Watch Executive Director Jim Dyke responded in kind: “There have been 38 complaints to the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board this year, evidence to support the fact that 69 percent of parents have a favorable view of television ratings. The PTC will be the 39th unless they choose to turn on their online complaint campaign machine that was responsible for 99 percent of FCC complaints in 2003. The PTC’s history of exaggerated numbers, flawed methodology and misleading or outright false claims suggests they are more interested in their own agenda rather than parents.”

TV Watch was launched in May 2005 and is a leading national organization to promote parental controls and individual choices as an alternative to increased government regulation of TV content. TV Watch is a nonpartisan coalition of 19 individuals and organizations including legal and entertainment experts and political and consumer organizations representing more than four million Americans.

RBR-TVBR observation: It’s also pretty amazing how the language and use of expletives has increased on broadcast TV as well—especially after 10:00 PM. However, parents always have a choice in what they let their kids watch and not watch. As our society changes, the use of expletives and violence has become more accepted and tends to increase ratings on particular shows in many cases. With this development and what kids can find on the internet, we—as a society and culture—reap what we sow.


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Carl has been with RBR-TVBR since 1997 and is currently Managing Director/Senior Editor. Residing in Northern Virginia, he covers the business of broadcasting, advertising, programming, new media and engineering. He’s also done a great deal of interviews for the company and handles our ever-growing stable of bylined columnists.