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Why murder in May brings good things to life for networks.

Controversy about violence on television is as old as the medium itself. For 45 years now, generations have come of age watching daily doses of carnage and mayhem on the tube -- from the cartoon slapstick of "Tom and Jerry" to the reality shock of today's "Top Cops." During that same period, every U.S. violent crime statistic has gone up, up, up. Theories vary as to the specifics, but by now most people concede that there is some relationship between those two facts.

In the past few years, debate about TV violence has moved out of the network shareholder meetings and college psychology labs and into the halls of Congress. It all started back in the mid-1980s when Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill. -- the one with the bow tie -- turned on the tube in his hotel room one night and saw a man being chain-sawed in half.

The result of Simon's involvement with the issue came in 1990, when the Simon-Glickman TV Violence Act became law. It did not attempt to legislate programming standards but instead gave the TV networks a temporary waiver of antitrust laws so they could work together to reduce the level of violence on the tube.

In late May, Simon's Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution held oversight hearings to check in on the networks' progress under the law. The hearings attracted considerable media attention.

Partly that was because they afforded the public a rare glimpse of our network presidents, the men (and men they all are) who run three of the most powerful institutions in American life. In their testimonies, the network presidents, and the man from Fox, all ran for the moral high ground. They were really trying to tame the video bast, they swore. And the fall schedule for 1993, they all promised, would be the kindest and gentlest ever.

But the media spotlight on the Simon hearings was mostly because, irony of ironies, the hearings came at the end of what was undoubtedly the most violent month of TV programming since the wall-to-wall coverage of the Gulf War. The Simon committee plans another round of hearings June 8, after some of the smoke has cleared from the May video murderthon.

In the television industry the month of May is called "sweeps" month. It is the month when the networks -- the Big Three and little Fox -- pull out all the stops to suck in viewers because May audience ratings are used as the benchmark to determine advertising prices in the fall season.

There is big, big money on the table during the ratings sweeps, and programming often plays out like a high stakes poker game: "I'll see your superstar-studded variety special and raise you two Oscar-winning Sunday night movies ...," and so forth.

But this year, in the bloody, bloody month of May, the betting was all on the low road. You probably noticed in the month just past a disturbing epidemic of cheap, sensational "fact-based" made-for-TV murder movies.

There was the Charley Starkweather rehash, "Murder in the Heartland"; the killer dad story, "Deadly Relations"; the Vietnam vet turned hit man of "When Love Kills"; "Love, Honor and Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage" brought a touch of romance for the ladies; and the list could go on and on.

But the untoppable topper came from our friends at NBC, a wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric. NBC programmers honored their parent company's slogan "We bring good things to life," by offering "Ambush in Waco," a TV movie about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, filmed while the bodies were still warm at the Texas compound.

And that's just hitting the low spots. All month long the networks stacked these bottom-feeding epics one atop the other like cordwood, or like the dead bodies on the screen. "Ambush in Waco" raised serious judgement questions with its closer-than-ever proximity to the events it depicted. But the same week also featured TV movies about the Twin Towers bombing and Hurricane Andrew, so lead time is probably a moot point these days.
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Title Annotation:Television
Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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