The citizen blames the government. The government blames the lobbyist. The lobbyist blames the media. The media blames the culture. And everyone blames Hollywood.
The topic is “guns” and “violence.”
The year is 1968.
Forty-five years ago, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and with a nation on edge, all eyes turned to the TV business to examine its role in what was being viewed as an American culture of violence.
Studies were commissioned; debates were had; blame was exchanged.
“Near hysteria,” reported “Broadcasting” magazine that August. “HARD LOOK AT TV VIOLENCE” screamed a September “Hollywood Reporter.”
In the end, much was said; awareness seemed raised; promises were made, but little really changed.
The conversation ebbed.
Life moved on.
Just as it had only five years earlier after complaints about ABC’s “The Untouchables,” and just as it would in the 1970s after both NBC’s “Born Innocent” movie and the “Kojak” trial. Again in the 1980s upon the arrival of cable and in the 1990s after the start of a “voluntary” ratings system and even in the 2000s after Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” of all things.
Objections and demands. Promises and appeasement. Life moved on.
The December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut is about as far from a lighthearted matter as can be imagined. But the discussion about “guns and violence” that’s cropped up in its wake – and of the possible connection to Hollywood – does beget some eye rolling.
Because it’s all been said before in a storm cloud of political rhetoric and executive oaths that always makes me wonder just what wanting to be “a part of the solution” really means.
Especially when I’m not sure Hollywood gets the problem.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, working in the TV business, for 24 years. For the better part of 17 of those years, I worked at CBS, in a dream-come-true executive position, helping to decide what gets on the air. It was the best of times with the best of people. Most times, anyway.
Back in 2000, midway through my tenure, CBS launched “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” about detectives and the cutting-edge forensic technology they use to solve murders.
The show was an instant hit, leading to our developing one show after another in the following years – “CSI” spin-offs, “NCIS,” “Cold Case,” “Without a Trace” – that tapped and drew blood from its innovative “police procedural” vein.
Our line-up came to thrive on the genre. And good for us: That’s what TV’s about.
One Sunday in 2004, a colleague mentioned she’d just read a script for one of these shows that, as a mother, she found so disturbing she had to put it down. Curious, I read the script the next day and understood why. It featured a particularly nasty string of killings that involved females who were kidnapped, undressed, chased, shot and beheaded. One of the victims was 13.
I raised objections the next day with colleagues who oversaw the show – about the script’s level of violence, about the teenaged victim, about the possible messages being presented. None shared them.
“We’re not quite sure why you have a problem with the show,” was, in fact, the response. I was taken aback. The episode was shot and aired as written.
After, I started looking more closely at our schedule’s body count and the ways in which it grew. What seemed to be a disproportionate number of victims were female, with the violence leveled often sexualized and frequently involving a state of undress.
My objections continued – about the choices we were making as a network or that we were allowing to be made for us by the producers whose work we bought, on this end of the pipeline. More confusion and dismissals.
Then, in the spring of 2005, came “Criminal Minds.” Based on the pilot alone – a young woman is assaulted, kidnapped and then caged, in her underwear – the press started taking note of what I’d been seeing and fearing we at CBS would get in trouble over.
They began to ask: “What’s with all the violence on CBS and why is it always female victims?” A controversy brewed, coming to a boil that summer at a press conference with our president.
Critics zeroed in on “Criminal Minds.” My colleague fielded the inquiries about as well as these settings allow, but ultimately fell back on an old TV-saw: "We look to the audience to tell us when they've had enough,” she said.
In the back of the room, I sighed. Wasn’t she essentially agreeing with press conclusions that some of what TV airs, some of what we are airing, is disturbing or questionable – and then abdicating responsibility for it? Beyond that, I remember thinking: “Why must we always wait until after something airs to care about what’s in it?”
Then and since, especially after Newtown, the questions eat at me. A believer of TV’s responsibilities, I’ve always thought that we in the industry should be as diligent about what’s goes on our air as we are what comes of it – for when this very topic of accountability arises, each time it does.
We’re not impotent. The notes on scripts and rough-cuts that we’re famous for giving to writers and producers – for clarity or language or exposition? The ones that lead to actual changes made by them at our behest before any show sees the light of day? Can’t some (more) of them focus on altering (reducing) violent or questionable content?
In raising my objections while at CBS, I wasn’t advocating for the censure of ideas or envisioning a prime time bettered by “Seventh Heaven” clones. I myself love the crime-and-grime genre.
What I thought I was doing was reminding that we, as borrowers of the public airwaves – again, on this end of the pipeline – remain aware of our roles and employ more care for how shows are made. That we bear in mind how choices made here and now might have consequences there and then.
Executives can say, “No.”
No, to seven shots of a mutilated corpse.
No, to the caging and disrobing of a female kidnapping victim.
No, to the torturous sexualization of violence.
No, a thousand times no, to including a 13-year-old girl as a serial killer’s prey.
None of which needs compromise art. Some of which just might matter. In the off chance there’s a connection between what people see and how they feel and act.
It’s about involvement and accountability.
And, it’s certainly a more tangible contribution to a national dialogue that shows no sign of ending, even if this particular one soon ebbs.
Because life is moving on.
And some aren’t moving on with it.
Jim McKairnes served as Senior Vice-President, Program Planning and Scheduling, for CBS Television from 1993-2006. Currently, he writes and guest-lectures about TV, and is an adjunct instructor with DePaul University, Chicago. He is the author of the post-college sourcebook, “103 Ways to Get into TV (By 102 Who Did, Plus Me).” McKairnes currently lives in the Los Angeles, Calif., area.