By David Bauder
If there’s any soul-searching among top television executives about onscreen violence contributing to real-life tragedies such as the Connecticut school shooting, it isn’t readily apparent.
All say the horrors of Newtown and Aurora, Colo., rocked them. But during a series of meetings with reporters here over the last 10 days, none offered concrete examples of how it is changing what they put on the air, or if that is necessary.
“I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not sure you can make the leap [that] a show about serial killers has caused the sort of problems with violence in our country,” said Robert Greenblatt, who put “Dexter” on the air when he ran Showtime and is overseeing development of a series on the notorious creep Hannibal Lecter for NBC. “There are many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns.”
All of those points are being considered by Vice President Joe Biden as he prepares to make recommendations Tuesday to President Barack Obama on ways to curb violence. When entertainment executives met with Biden in Washington on Friday, makers of blood-spurting video games such as “Call of Duty” and “Mortal Kombat” dominated attention. In theaters, “Texas Chainsaw 3-D” dominated box-office receipts in its first week.
Television’s biggest influence is its omnipresence: The average American watches more than four hours of TV a day.
In recent days, only FX President John Landgraf said he was in favor of further study about any correlation between entertainment and real violence. Previous studies have been mixed.
Landgraf has sons age 15, 12 and 9, and said he doesn’t let them play video games in which the player is shooting.
Everything the entertainment industry does should be fair game in a discussion about violence, he said. But he pointed out that the zombie series “Walking Dead” and brutally violent “Sons of Anarchy” are both very popular in England and that country has far fewer gun murders than the U.S. The availability of powerful assault weapons and ammunition are most responsible for the difference, he said.
The Newtown shooting was heartbreaking, said Paul Lee, ABC entertainment president. “We welcome the conversation as to how we as a culture can make sure that we don’t let these events happen again,” he said.
He said ABC has strong standards for what it broadcasts, stronger than its competitors.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “We are storytellers. We have to tell stories that are vibrant and passionate, but we want to make sure that the stories that we tell are done with integrity, you know, there’s no gratuitous action that goes out there, that it’s driven through the stories and the characters, and that we have a moral compass in what we do.”
The appetite for “Walking Dead” and “Texas Chainsaw 3-D” among young viewers is not lost on any TV executive, and bottom-line pressure speaks most loudly to them. Broadcast networks feel a particular need to push the envelope when they see cable programs making noise with an ability to show more explicit scenes.
The same week that Lee talked about ABC’s standards, the network’s hit “Scandal” had a scene depicting waterboarding.
Fox has a highly anticipated series due this month, “The Following,” about a serial killer who recruits deadly disciples. Its gruesome scenes include a woman who commits suicide by gouging her eye and piercing her skull with an ice pick, and a man set on fire at a coffee stand.
Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment chairman, said that given all of the media choices, the impact on real life is a broad and complex conversation. “It trivializes it to try and link it to television, or broadcast television in particular,” he said.
“Part of entertainment, part of what we do on television, is to provide escapism,” Reilly said. “Escapism comes in many forms. It could be laughter. It could be fantasy. It is also your worst nightmare come to life. And it makes our palms sweat and it moves us emotionally and puts us on the edge of the seat. We are engrossed in it, and we forget ourselves for an hour.”
When a network is putting a thriller on the air, it has to be able to compete on an intensity level, he said.
Being publicly questioned about the level of violence on the air clearly annoyed Reilly, however. Asked if Fox had made any changes to the promotion or content of “The Following” after the Newtown school shooting last month, he snapped, “No,” and said he wouldn’t address any more questions on the topic.
He was wrong, by the way: Fox later said it had replaced a billboard showing a woman with an ice pick with an image of series star Kevin Bacon, and combed its on-air promos to make sure there was no gunplay.