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Murder in the Heartland.

However, the most questionable offering by far was "Murder in the Heartland." Here Tim Roth portrayed Charley Starkweather, a Nebraska teenager who, in the late 1950s, took off with his girlfriend, Caryl Fugate, on a killing rampage. Starkweather eventually was executed.

The movie was widely condemned by media critics of all stripes for its pointless brutality. The criticism took on even heavier weight when a young man in Canada went on a shooting spree that he said was inspired by the TV show.

The producer of "Murder in the Heartland" claimed that in more than 30 years the Charley Starkweather story had never been filmed and that it demanded telling. The Starkweather saga is a classic American story. It is a parable about despair, rage and isolation in a land of vast empty spaces, geographic and spiritual. But it was nailed on film in the 1970s by the Terence Malick film "Badlands" (with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) which changed little but the names in the Stark-weather saga.

And if that weren't enough, in 1982 Bruce Springsteen did the job again, from the inside out, in the title cut of his "Nebraska" album. Between the film and the song there is nothing left to say about Charley Starkweather, and no responsible reason for re-airing the tale.

But a "statement" about America, or anything else, wasn't really on the agenda for the "Heartland" producers, or for anyone else in the commercial television business. TV is in the business of selling an audience (you and me) to advertisers (the Fortune 500, et al.). They will put on whatever they think will draw a crowd. Because naked bodies are specifically prohibited by the Federal Communications Commission, violence, the sleazier the better, is the next best bet.

That's what got Senator Simon and legions of other public-spirited reform types involved in this issue. In many circles, TV violence is increasingly viewed as a public health problem, a contributing factor to the spiraling problem of youth violence and homicide. This analysis could suggest active measures regulating program content -- measures that other, equally public-spirited citizens might call censorship.

One media reform group, the National Coalition on Television Violence, has tried to straddle these positions with a proposal for a federally mandated TV-ratings system, health warnings before violent broadcasts and warnings in all program advertising.

There is ample precedent for such regulation of broadcast television. Historically, the public airwaves have been viewed as a public trust. Thus, broadcast speech -- which enters the home unannounced -- has not been allowed the same freedoms as print or film, which require a deliberate choice and a purchase before exposure. In fact, as we've noted, the sexual content of TV programming in the United States is subject to restrictions that are downright puritanical compared with those of most other nations.

But program ratings and labels can open up the same problems of indirect censorship that are experienced with music labeling and with the "NC-17" movie rating. Works with strong, adultonly content, when given red-flag labels, may become easy targets for the religious right.

Those groups can apply pressure on theater owners or malls with record stores or, in the case of TV, program advertisers. In this fashion, censorship can be achieved through the back door.

I wouldn't mind if programs such as "Murder in the Heartland" or "Ambush in Waco" were subjected to such treatment. But it wouldn't stop there. My own favorite program, "The Simpsons," probably would earn a violence warning, too. At least every episode that featured the cat-and-mouse cartoon violence satire of "The Itchy and Scratchy Show" certainly would. And "The Simpsons" couldn't survive being bumped out of their 8 p.m. Eastern family hour slot.

The fact is that when it comes to dramatic art there is violence, and there is violence. For instance, take the case of the Oliver Stone-produced miniseries "Wild Palms," which, coincidentally, aired on ABC during the May sweeps. It was set in the America of 2007 A.D., where holographic television is being used for mass mind control.

In its own weird way, "Palms" was as "violent" as anything on the air this spring. But it also had some important things to say about illusion and reality in our culture, and the confusion thereof, and about the dubious comforts of conformity.

A program like "Wild Palms" is not likely to corrupt impressionable thrillseekers because its seriousness of purpose will bore them to death. Dramatized violence in a context of psychological complexity and moral ambiguity simple doesn't carry the same charge as your basic black hat vs. white hat exploitation piece.

Those kind of distinctions are, of course, impossible to regulate. But it should be possible to protect preteen children from programming that sows terror and hostility. It also should be possible for public opinion about TV violence to effect programming practices.

Senator Simon's approach is specifically designed to avoid outside regulation of programming. Instead he and his committee are trying to establish a climate within the television industry in which it will become easier for broad-casters to be good citizens.

That is certainly worth a try.
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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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