TV ponders violence, responsibility in wake of Newtown tragedy
Jan 11, 2013 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) --
John Landgraf runs the FX network, home of some of basic cable's most popular, and most violent, programming.
But Landgraf is also a father to three sons, the youngest of whom is 9. When first-graders were massacred in a school in Newtown, Conn., in December, Landgraf was "upset and so horrified and sad and angry," and he was also curious. He pondered, as many others did, whether violent content in television, movies and video games should take any blame for mass murders like those in Newtown; Aurora, Colo.; and elsewhere.
"I think anything and everything that bears any responsibility for these kinds of tragedies, up to and including what we do in the media, should be fair game and should be looked at," Landgraf told TV critics meeting in Pasadena with broadcast and cable networks. But neither he nor other programmers would draw a direct line of cause and effect.
After the Newtown murders, some advocacy groups (including the National Rifle Association) laid blame on media. In a poll conducted by the Hollywood Reporter and Penn Schoen Berland, 44 percent of parents said the shootings made them more aware of how much violence their children are consuming in media, and 35 percent said Congress or the president should pressure Hollywood to cut back on violent content.
With the Newtown tragedy still so fresh, programmers quizzed by members of the Television Critics Association said they were sensitive to concerns about violent content. But television is a business, they repeated, and some of the most violent programs _ including FX's "Sons of Anarchy," about a murderous, drug-dealing biker gang, and "American Horror Story," in which atrocities are committed in a mental asylum _ are among the most popular.
"We're in the culture business," said Kevin Reilly, chief programmer for Fox, which will launch the graphically bloody serial killer drama "The Following" later this month. "It comes with responsibility."
Reilly said he didn't believe a direct linkage existed between violence on TV and a troubled young man's murder spree. "But we take everything we do, everything we put on the air, with the utmost responsibility," he said. "I have a lot of sleepless nights. Not only am I trying to get hits, but we're trying ... to find that line."
The subject is much more complicated than simply saying we should clean up TV (or movies or games), Reilly said.
Fox, and any TV network, is "part of a much larger tapestry and a very complex media landscape where there is access 24 hours a day at your fingertips on the Web and on cable news, as well as all of the other entertainment and media choices, from gaming to television. ... We have a responsibility and we have an FCC license and we take that as seriously as we absolutely can."
Kevin Williamson created "The Following," in which acolytes to an imprisoned serial killer commit horrible murders in his name, while an FBI agent played by Kevin Bacon tracks them.
But Williamson, who previously created coming-of-age drama "Dawson's Creek," isn't numb to real-life violence.
"We all worry about it," he said. "I mean, who wasn't affected by Sandy Hook or the one that I'm still disturbed when I think of it, Aurora We sit in the writers' room after that happened and we're all traumatized by it."
But "I'm writing fiction," Williamson said. "I'm just a storyteller. And you think there's this cumulative effect I don't know."
At NBC, entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said, "We were all stricken as everyone was with that horrible tragedy, as well as all of the other tragedies that we've seen over the last few years. It weighs on all of us."
NBC is "conscious of the amount of violence and the amount of edge in our shows," Greenblatt said. On cable, "You can do all kinds of things that are no-holds-barred. There are a lot of parameters in broadcast television that we think about, not only as a company that has responsibilities to the FCC, but as people who have families."
When he was at Showtime, Greenblatt developed the serial killer hit "Dexter," and this summer he will bring "Hannibal," about the notorious Hannibal Lecter, to NBC.
Still, "I'm not sure you can make the leap from a show about serial killers (to) the problem with violence in our country," he said. "There's many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns."
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Gun violence is the real issue, FX's Landgraf believes.
The incidence of gun homicide in the United States is 90 times higher than in Great Britain, he said.
"We consume the same media _ same movies, same television shows, same video games. 'Call of Duty' (the game the Newtown killer reportedly played for hours a day) is a very popular game in England. '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.
"If you want to look at the major difference between England and the United States, it's access to and availability of guns, and in particular, I would say, it's a kind of gun."
Every tragedy is heartbreaking, ABC Entertainment Paul Lee said, and ABC will welcome a conversation about what the TV might do to avoid future incidents.
"Our job is always to get a sense of what the country is feeling," Lee said.
NBC's Greenblatt has what he thinks is an antidote to violence in media.
"Not to be glib," he said, "but I would say the best tonic for this kind of thing is go watch an episode of 'Parenthood' as a really great example of a show about a family who love each other and grapple with all of the issues in life."
Gail Pennington: firstname.lastname@example.org
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