the ballad of tv violence

Kids and teenagers of today do not by any means have a monopoly on violent influences in their lives—it’s all around us, we’re all affected to some degree, regardless of age, and it’s so well-entrenched, that’s what we ought to be alarmed and outraged about….”


by marc covert


Touting it as “one of the most definitive studies yet to link watching television with violent behavior,” MSNBC reported on March 28 that a new study, “Television Viewing and Aggressive Behavior During Adolescence and Adulthood,” published in the March 29 issue of the journal Science, links watching television with violent behavior in both sexes, but especially in teenage boys. In one of the truly loaded sentences of all time, they reported that “teen-agers who watch more than an hour of television a day are much more likely to become violent in later years than the rare adolescent who watches less.” I can’t even begin to imagine where they found those rare adolescents; the idea of attempting to locate an American of any age who watches less than an hour of TV a day makes my head spin. But as it turns out, the research team, led by Columbia University professor Jeffrey G. Johnson, spent 17 years tracking 707 kids, “most of them white and Catholic,” in upstate New York. Evidently they didn’t resort to any raids into Amish country, at least that they’re reporting here.

Johnson’s team states that “There was a significant association between the amount of time spent watching television during adolescence and early adulthood and the likelihood of subsequent aggressive acts against others.” And in the first paragraph of the Science article, the authors get right down to business: “Three to five violent acts are depicted in an average hour of prime-time television and”—here’s the eye-popper—” 20 to 25 violent acts are depicted in an average hour of children’s television.” After a mercifully succinct report, complete with graphs and tables to bring a tear of gratitude to the media-wonk’s eye, the authors wrap up with “…time spent watching television was associated with subsequent aggression, whether or not there was a history of aggressive behavior.”

The study has generated some interest with MSNBC, CNN, and NPR, and has been picked up by newspapers through the AP, but where exactly it stands in the long-running controversy over media violence remains to be seen. On the one hand, those who have long cried foul over the readily available bloodbaths of network and cable TV (as well as movies, though they aren’t addressed in the Johnson report) can certainly point to this report and enjoy a nice, self-satisfied “See? I told you so.”

On the other hand, I just can’t shake the idea that scientists, politicians, parent groups, teachers, and pundits are simply coming up with numbers that fit nicely into the easy answers we all so desire. It’s just too easy to blame violence on the powerless—teenagers, low-income individuals and families, the usual scapegoats. Those same hand-wringing types who decry teen violence, blaming it on TV and music, have probably read every Agatha Christie novel, watched every episode of “Murder She Wrote,” and love nothing more than taking on the persona of Colonel Mustard, sitting around the kitchen table playing Clue with the family, beating the brains out of Mr. Boddy with a lead pipe in the study. Kids and teenagers of today do not by any means have a monopoly on violent influences in their lives—it’s all around us, we’re all affected to some degree, regardless of age, and it’s so well-entrenched, that’s what we ought to be alarmed and outraged about.

I doubt that I ever went a single day from the age of 8 to 14 without watching at least 3 hours of TV per day. It was on all the time, forbidden only during the family’s sacrosanct dinnertime; otherwise the tube was blaring from morning to night and long after I was marched off to bed. And my parents didn’t just dump me in front of the set for long, quiet stretches of unsupervised lobotomizing; they actually had a list of shows that I was not allowed to watch for any reason. That banned list, that Index, followed a certain twisted logic: while I wasn’t allowed to watch shows like “Happy Days,” “M.A.S.H.,” “Laverne & Shirley,” or “Three’s Company,” it was perfectly fine for me to watch hour after hour of shows like “Columbo,” “Mannix,” or Quinn Martin classics like “Cannon” and “Barnaby Jones.”

While poor old corrugated Buddy Ebsen never went on any Schwarzenegger-style slaughtering sprees, you can be damn sure each and every one of those shows started out with a good, old-fashioned, cold-blooded murder committed by some unshaven, cigarette-toking hoodlum. But heaven forbid I should be exposed to anything as unwholesome as Fonzie scooping up giggling schoolgirls on his Harley, or Hawkeye Pierce waggling his eyebrows lasciviously at some half-drunk Army nurse.

Just look at one of the “wholesome” pastimes I mentioned: Clue. The board game has been around forever, since 1949, to be exact, and more than 3 million games are sold around the world each year. The same site points out that “with six characters, six weapons, and nine rooms, Clue offers a potential of 324 different murder combinations.” And you don’t have to settle for the original Clue: you can play The Simpsons Clue, Scooby-Doo Clue, Dungeons & Dragons Clue, or Death by Indulgence: the After-Dinner Mint Clue, where you eat the chocolate game pieces as you go sleuthing about. There are even “Junior” versions of Clue, but thankfully they don’t involve 5-year-olds running around trying to figure out who decapitated little Jimmy with a Power Rangers sword in little Chloe’s bedroom.

And what about Agatha Christie? I seem to remember my sweet grandmother, for example, was never more than fifteen feet away from an Agatha Christie book in her life. They still sell to this day—so far over a billion copies in English, and another billion in over 45 foreign languages. According to, “She is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare,” two other literary classics with their own share of aggressive content. Take a look at “Means of Murder” and you’ll see that they have been kind enough to categorize Christie’s books by method of dispatch: “Poison, gunshot, stabbing, blow to the head, strangling, falling/being pushed, drowning,” and “other means,” including “electrocution, throat cut, hit and run, immolation, and suffocation.” What was my dear grandmother thinking? From the sound of it I don’t want to know.

Okay, okay, I know I’m picking on two wildly popular institutions, but my point is, if Clue was invented today and became an instant online gaming hit among 14-to-22-year-olds, or if Agatha Christie was churning out one nasty murder scenario after another but putting it out as rap or metal or whatever it takes to explode onto the teen mass-marketing scene, they’d be sitting there getting their faces sprayed with spittle on The O’Reilly Factor, right along with Def Jam’s Russell Simmons and those bloated buffoons from Insane Clown Posse.

But let’s get back to the Johnson report. Much as I would like to agree with the statistics about violence on TV, I was taken aback by the numbers cited in the opening paragraph. Three to five violent acts per hour in prime time programs doesn’t strike me as nearly as high as one would expect—maybe “Seventh Heaven” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” are queering the deck?—and 20 to 25 violent acts per hour of children’s TV even surprises me. I can’t help but think the clipboard crowd must have been a little quick on the draw. Maybe when one Teletubby pokes the other Teletubby in the belly and sends it sprawling on its fuzzy little flabby ass that counts too.

So what does the report tell us? In true scientific form, its authors attempt to stay completely neutral, offering up the data and letting others run with the ball. In the same issue of Science that contains the Johnson report, however, Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman offer up a more pointed response to the Johnson findings. In their article, “The Effects of Media Violence on Society,” Anderson and Bushman point out that six major professional societies—”the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association”—have recently concluded that “the data point overwhelmingly” to aggressive acts being caused by violent media content. They also cite the Johnson report and find fault only with its use of “hours of TV viewing, rather than hours of viewing violent TV,” which leads Anderson and Bushman to believe that, if anything, the Johnson report underestimates the effects of violence on TV.

In one of their most amusing (and at the same time disturbing) statements, Anderson and Bushman write, “Despite the consensus among experts, lay people do not seem to be getting the message from the popular press that media violence contributes to a more violent society…this inaccurate reporting in the popular press may account for continuing controversy long after the debate should have been over, much as the cigarette smoking/cancer controversy persisted long after the scientific community knew that smoking causes cancer.”

No surprises there. As long as millions of viewers tune in and soak up the programmers’ bloody drivel, as long as kids are allowed to marinate in a steady stream of violent, bellicose programming slipped in between loud, pushy advertisements paid for by giant corporations, those same corporations will be happily watching their bottom line, and the “popular press” are not exactly going to fall over themselves to point out what it is they’ve been doing to us all these years.


Originally published:
Issue Nineteen
April 2002




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