In light of mass shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, what obligation, if any, does the television industry have to tone down the violent, blood-soaked images it peddles to millions of Americans every day?
That question provoked plenty of spirited conversation at the recent Television Critics Association press tour, during which top network and cable executives found themselves in the awkward position of defending their programs and dismissing any connection between on-screen violence and the real thing.
"I'm not a psychologist, but 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," NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt
Greenblatt was the head of programming at Showtime when the premium pay cable channel developed "Dexter," a drama pegged to a vigilante serial killer that became a big hit and paved the way for darker prime-time material. Now at NBC, he is overseeing the development of "Hannibal," a show based on one of fiction's most notorious serial killers, Hannibal Lecter. A premiere date hasn't been scheduled, but it could air this spring or summer.
Greenblatt told journalists that there will be "a lot of violence around ('Hannibal'), but you don't see lots of acts of violence."
Meanwhile, earlier this week, Fox premiered "The Following," a highly touted -- and
In the same week that programmers addressed the media, Vice President Joe Biden met with entertainment industry leaders as part of President Barack Obama's post-Newtown promise to examine cultural factors that may be contributing to rampant gun violence. TV executives are on the hot seat because, although their medium may not be as violent as some video games and films, its influence is so pervasive. Some studies have estimated that the average American watches more than four hours of TV a day.
Among the shows coming under heavy scrutiny lately is "The Following," which is exceptionally intense and gruesome for broadcast TV. Monday's opening episode contained a scene in which a woman stabbed herself in the eye with an ice pick. That was in addition to a bloody prison massacre and the abduction of a young boy. In next week's episode, a man is set on fire at a street-side coffee stand.
Still, Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly staunchly defends the drama.
"I'm putting on an excellent thriller. I'm not glorifying killers," he said. "Part of what we do on television is provide escapism. It comes in many forms. It could be laughter. It could be fantasy. It also could be your worst nightmare come to life."
Kevin Williamson, the executive producer who created "The Following," admits that the show is not for the "faint of heart," but added that what happens in the "real world" finds its way into his work.
"We're all traumatized" by what happened in Newtown, said Williamson, who explained that the 1999 killings at Columbine High School, in part, prompted
"I'm sort of shining the light on some of those kids." he said.
The executive who spent the most time reflecting on the subject of pop-cultural violence was FX chief John Landgraf, who oversees such explicitly violent basic-cable shows as "Sons of Anarchy" and "American Horror Story." He spoke of his reluctance to allow his three sons to play video games in which the player wields a gun, and he called for more studies to be conducted on possible links between on-screen mayhem and real-life violence.
But Landgraf, like some of his peers, also moved to deflect blame away from his industry. He pointed to the fact that the gun-related death rate in Britain is a fraction of that in the
"'The Walking Dead' is the No. 1 cable show in England.' 'Sons of Anarchy' is very popular in England. Last time I checked, James Bond kills an awful lot of people with a gun. ... The major difference is the access (to) and availability of guns and a particular kind of gun," he said.
While the TV executives all insisted that they were shaken by last year's tragedies and pledged an increased awareness and sensitivity, it remains to be seen if actual changes will follow. Just hours after ABC Entertainment boss Paul Lee asserted that the network's shows fall under stronger standards and feature no "gratuitous action," the ABC drama "Scandal" contained a waterboarding scene.
And there's no denying that death and mayhem often pump up the profit margin in Hollywood. To wit: The stylish period drama "Mad Men" may collect loads of prestigious awards for AMC, but the cable network's biggest hit, by far, is "The Walking Dead," a horrror-and-gore fest that has become the No. 1 show among 18-to-49-year-olds, television's most coveted demographic.
Meanwhile, on the broadcast side, CBS continues to rule the ratings, thanks in large part to a lineup packed with dark crime procedurals such as "CSI" and "Criminal Minds." The latter show was singled out by NBC's Greenblatt, who in fine finger-pointing fashion, described it as "worse than 'Dexter' ever was."
Nina Tassler, the entertainment chief responsible for CBS' high body-count lineup, dismisses that criticism, pointing out that while heinous acts often occur in those shows, the perpetrators always meet their doom.
"At the end of the day, justice is served, the good guys prevail, and the bad guy goes to jail," she said. "That is the paradigm of our shows."