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Violence et télévision

Jean-Michel Lacroix

The New Violence Profile

George Gerbner

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1My purpose is to try and present a perspective in which the many interesting contributions of this morning can be seen in the broadest possible context. And I will also make five points. I won’t put them on the screen. I want you to remember them.

2First, I’d like to reflect on, What is the meaning of the age of television?

3Second, What is the meaning of violence? We’re not talking about hurting or killing people, we’re talking about images, stories about hurting and killing people, that have lessons, and that send out certain messages.

4Third, What are the consequences of a life-time of exposure to these images? Based on our reseach and research of other people.

5Number four, What drives it? Why do we have such an overspill of violence, and here I would like to present a new and, I think, surprising finding of our research.

6And finally, What can we do about it? What should we do about it? As parents, as professionals, and as citizens.

7So, let’s start with the first one. You may have heard the story of the teacher who asks the children, “Can anyone tell me what our century owes Mr Thomas Alva Edison?” And one child speaks up and says, “Teacher, without Mr Edison we would still be watching television by candle-light”. Our children don’t, and increasingly their parents don’t believe that there was a time before television. For the first time in human history, a child in North America is born into a home in which television is on an average of seven hours and forty-one minutes a day. This has never happened before. For the first time in human history, most of the stories told to most of our children most of the time are not told by their parents, and are not told by the school or by the church or by the community, in fact by anyone who has anything much to tell. But increasingly by a handful of global conglomerates that have something to sell. And this has profoundly altered the kind of stories that can be told and cannot be told, which in turn has profoundly altered the process of socialization of how our children grow up into the roles into which they grow. It means that a ten-year old child today in America can remember more names of brands of beer than names of American presidents. That a ten-year old child in America is as likely to recognize Joe Camel as Mickey Mouse. Now for those of you who don’t know, Joe Camel is the image of Camel cigarettes advertising, a kind of sleezy, seedy sexist image that represents an industry that is the only industry selling a widely advertised product that is garanteed to kill if used as directed. And that is responsible for over a thousand deaths a day and anyone who is really interested in violence should address the greatest killer of all, which is tobacco.

8Now, let’s talk about the second greatest killer of all, which is violence itself, and go on to the second point. What is the meaning of violence in this kind of environment in this new cultural environment?

9Well, there may have been more blood-thirsty times than the present. But there has never been a time when images of violence, stories of violence would have inundated every home, as they do today. We are awash in a tidal wave of violent representation such as the world has never seen. We’ll not talk about Shakespeare, we’ll not talk about Racine or Molière or the Bible, or fairy-tales, all of which have fairly gaudy stories very often. We are talking about assembly-line, mass-produced violence for entertainment, what I call “happy” violence. We talk about violence that is swift, that is very efficient, that is often cool, that shows no pain, no suffering, no agony, no tragedy, and that always leads to a happy ending. Because after all you have to deliver your audience to the next commercial in the mood to be receptive to buy. Advertisers don’t like tragic endings. They don’t like to upset people and for reasons that I’ll come to in a minute, violence is produced in great quantities, extremely pervasive, but most of it is happy violence. We see it at a rate of five times per hour, in the evening, in so called “prime time”. Three entertaining murders a night is the nightly diet of our children, and if they are unlucky enough to watch children’s programmes, which only one fifth of the children’s viewing time, actually, is devoted to, they see it at a rate of twenty-five times per hour, much of it, cartoons with humour, which make the message go down and be digested more easily.

10What is the message?

11Violence is a fairly complicated scenario. It’s a social relationship. It’s a relationship between perpetrators and victims. Its ultimate message is a demonstration of power. It shows who can get away with what against who. It teaches a method of domination, of terror, and a method of submission, of becoming a victim. And it teaches that in a highly deferential and interesting manner. For every ten perpetrators of violence on American television- and this comes from our studies that you’ve heard Mrs. Frau-Meigs refer to- for every ten violent characters, there are about ten or eleven victims. But for every ten violent women, who are given that kind of power that is standard for white males in the prime of life, there are seventeen female victims. For every ten women of colour who are given that kind of power there are twenty-two victims of that group. So as representation goes down, because representation in culture is a resource that is given out differentially to different groups of people, women are one out of three characters on American television, young people are one out of five, older people arc one out of six or eight. As representation goes down, victimization goes up. So that women and minorities absorb much greater degree of an internal calculus of risk and vulnerability. This is what trains some people to be minorities. Minorities are not born, and women of course are not the only numerical minority. They are trained to behave, they are trained to feel that they are more vulnerable, that in the possession of power of who can get away with what against who, they are more likely to lose out. Therefore they are more dependent, they are more demanding of protection, and are more likely to accept repression if it comes as enhancing their own security.

12In general, aside from this diffential, in general, the more people watch television the more they are insecure, the more they feel vulnerable. Let me give you an overall account of the consequences, and here we are on point number three.

13This endoctrination starts in infancy, it has never before happened, but from infancy on, the child will absorb many thousands of highly ritualized uniform patterns of demonstration of power in violent scenes, and there are three major consequences. The one that most people are concerned about and certainly the most dramatic and the most tragic, but probably the least pervasive, is imitation, is the actual contribution that makes to the committing of violence. Now, you know that the relationship between hearing or viewing stories and committing violence is an extremely difficult one to study. You can study what people think, you can ask what people believe, their assumptions, their opinions, their attitudes, but the relationship between the stories that we hear every day and committing a crime is very tenuous. In fact, even the statistics on committing violent crimes are very difficult to evaluate, because most violence is not reported, most crimes do not get tried, most crimes do not result in a verdict and most people who are sentenced are not even going to jail, so that there are many statistical problems here, but most of the estimates, the most reliable estimates say that this makes about, that is television violence, makes approximately a 5 % contribution to the committing of the real life violence. Now, a 5 % contribution is not insignificant. That means in a very large field tens of thousands of people hurt or killed, but it is not the most significant contribution. It does not begin to approximate the contribution of economic trends of unemployment, of despair, of hopelessness in many of our communities, of joblessness in many of our communities, those are the real correlations, the major correlations.

14The second effect of a life-time of exposure to these images is what we call desensitization. It means a kind of brutalization. It means a loss of the ability to protest, the loss of the ability to be upset, the loss of the ability to emphasize. It means a loss of a kind of human sensitivity to suffering and to tragedy. The most pervasive consequence that affects all of us is the cultivation of what we call the “mean world syndrome”. The “mean world syndrome” means that if you’re growing up in a heavy viewing home, for all practical purposes, you live in a meaner role, and act like it, than your next door neighbour who grows up in a light viewing home, but lives in the same world. That means that you expect danger, that means that you’re angry and frustrated, that you feel more insecure, you feel more vulnerable, many of the manifestations that Professor Ruel was talking about ealier, that you demand harsher punishment, that you demand more capital punishment, that you even demand executions to be televised, that you will accept repression, as long as it comes as punishing to enhance your sense of security, even if it has never done that and is never likely to do that. In the last ten years, there’s been no increase in homicide in the United-States, but there has been a tripling of jails. Our jail population is already the largest percentage in the civilized world. And yet, in every election campaign, every candidate competes with every other candidate in who can build more jails, who can be harsher on sentencing people, who can demand more capital punishment--there’s a new bill pending in the Congress of the United-States adding fifty new grounds for capital crimes. All the measures that have never worked to reduce or to doter crime, in fact, as you know in Canada, when capital punishment was abolished, capital crimes went down. They’ve never worked to deter or reduce violence, but have never failed to get votes. These votes are driven by the overkill, by the violent representations with which our children and by now our parents have grown up. They imprison not only the largest percentage of people in the civilized world but they imprison all of us in our suburbs, in our high rise apartments, houses, as if those hurt. People are afraid to go into the city. They’re afraid to get on the subways in New-York and other parts of the United-States, so more so than in the last few weeks, the city of New-York has banned, forbidden, the use of its subways for film crews and television crews to take pictures, because every time they take a picture on the subway it turns out to be a dreadful scene of menace, disaster of chase, of jeopardy, and it simply discourages people from going and taking the subways, which arc probably the safest form of transportation compared with getting into your car. So that the fear and insecurity that the outpouring of violence has generated is probably the most debilitating, the most paralyzing effect and phenomenon, much more so than the actual violence that it inspires although they’re both tragic and they’re both part of the spectrum.

15Why is this so?

16Even the invitation to this meeting said somewhere, and if you look al your invitation, that says “what can we do about it when violence is so popular?” The common assumption is that it is done because it’s simply produced for a market that wants more violence. Well, maybe you hear this for the first time, but don’t believe it. Obviously, violence is a legitimate artistic and journalistic feature, it’s even necessary to show the tragedy of just what it does, to show the pain. And good stories have always been in great demand even if they had violence. There’s no evidence that it was violence that made it to be in great demand, and we have found —and here I can tell you the results of a new study that has not yet been published— we have compared over a hundred violent programs with over a hundred non-violent programs held at the same time, on the same stations, for the last five years, and we have found that the Nilson ratings, that the audience ratings of the non-violent programs have always been higher than the ratings of the violent programs. So, in fact, violent programs are not popular, are less popular than violent programs. And if you think about it, the ten highest rated programs have always been non-violent. If you look at the public-opinion polls, you find that 85 % of the people say they don’t like and don’t want violence. Of course television is a ritual and people don’t watch by the program, they watch by their clock. And if you watch more than an hour-and -a-half, two hours a day, which most of our people do, it’s inescapable. They get it whether they want it or not. Even 75 % of television station managers surveyed last summer about violence said they don’t like violence but they can’t help it. That is what the market provides at the rate, at the price, that is the cheapest for them to buy. But basically what drives violence is not popularity in any country. What drives violence is what the trade, the industry says: that it travels well.

17Let me explain. There are only a few buyers for television programs in the United States, so that a producer of programs cannot choose the prices fairly low and producers of American television programs do not, cannot break even on the domestic market. It’s what we call “deficit production”. In order to break even, in order to make a profit, they have to produce for the global market. American programs dominate more than 50 % of all the screens of the world. That is our second largest export. Our second largest export is movies and television programs. Sometimes in my more facetious moments I say our largest export is armament, and our second largest is instructions on how to use them. The dependence of American program producers on the global market is overwhelming. Now when you know that you are going to produce for the global market, you think, “I’m gonna have to have a forrmula", because these productions are not even individual programs, they are produced by fifteen, sixteen, twenty, twenty-two, twenty-five, at a particular deal. Your buyers in every country cannot buy individual programs, they have to buy packages. They can’t even look at the individual programs, they can take it or leave it, and once they take it they have to air it. Those are the terms of the deal. If you know you are going to do that you ask yourself, what is it that needs no translation, that is image-driven, that speaks action in every language, that can be introduced into any culture? And the answer of this industry is that it’s violence. So that violence becomes an ingredient in a global marketing formula that is imposed on the creative people in Hollywood and elsewhere where they’re producing it, and fostered on the children of the world, despite the fact that it is not popular in any country.

18Home-grown productions of high quality get higher ratings in every country. But, these are so cheap to buy that it costs more to produce one minute of your own programming than to buy an hour’s worth of this international conglomerate product. So it becomes an irresistible business deal for the governments and the entrepreneurs in every country for going on the market to buy programming, and as you know television is insatiable, it devours programming, it needs a constant flow all the time.

19So that the violence that we see, despite some voices you hear, is not an expression of freedom. It is an expression of a de facto censorship by a global marketing formula that serves no public interest and that serves no view or interest, that is imposed because of the global marketing structure, of which of course France is an important part. But I’m glad to see that during the GATT negociations and in other ways, France has taken a leadership position in saying, well, we’re going to protect our own industry and because of the price differential, you can only do that by subsidizing, you cannot do it on the free market. The so-called free market is not a free market, it’s a plutocracy, it’s where money rules and if you can buy the product, make the product cheap and buy it at a good rate, then you’re going to dominate that market. Now, if that is complicated by the fact that it happens to be violence, it happens to be a demonstration of power, that it happens to be an invading demonstration of power that favours some groups, basically white males in the prime of life against all other groups, and that it happens to be a phenomenon, a dynamic that generates the kind of anxiety and insecurity that invites and even welcomes repression, you have a social, human, political phenomenon of the highest importance. You have the makings of global monopolies and global repression. And the outbreaks of repressive movements in the form of neo-fascism in many countries are not unrelated to the introduction, the control and the use of this kind of television.

20What can we do about it?

21I’m speaking from the American perspective in which we are in a sense way behind, because there is very little public service on American broadcasting, and such little as there was is getting to be less and less. In many ways, in France, in Canada, there is a greater division of responsibilities, there’s a greater representation of public interest and of public service, there’s a greater representation of the public. In the United States, we have to organize a public. And that is a new organization that I’m working with very actively, it’s called the Cultural Environment Movement. It’s called that in the recognition that we’re dealing not even with television, television is the mainstream of a new cultural environment: it has changed the nature of book publishing, it has changed the nature of motion picture production, it has reorganized the entire cultural life of our communities. What we’re dealing with is something like the physical environment, except that it is not a question of the water we drink and the air we breathe, it’s a question of the stories with which we grow up and through which we learn to experience the outside world. Most of what we know, or think we know, we have never personally experienced. We have learned that through the stories, it’s culture. It’s the cultural process that makes us such human beings as we are and that gives us our ideas of the outside world and of other people, and of how to deal with them. So that we are facing a cultural environment, globally, which has drifted out of democratic reach. And we have to organize, form a new type of organization, which we call a Cultural Environment Movement, to assist in those public organizations that exist in some countries, as in France, as in Canada — you will hear about them this afternoon and see the wonderful work that they are doing, controversial, obviously, because it is a contested terrain. It’s contested because it is shifting to the centre of the political arena. Most of the problems in the new countries in Eastern Europe, and of former Soviet Union, revolve around who will control television, that’s what most of their great political contests have become. Because whoever Controls the telling of stories controls the making of laws, eventually, in every culture.

22So the Cultural Environment Movement is a coalition of many groups —groups of media-oriented citizen activists, women’s groups, minority groups, labour groups, religious groups, health related groups, as this is a health problem as well, and of individuals who wish to join— trying to develop a new mechanism of public participation in cultural decision-making, which has become highly centralized and globalized. Trying to assist the organizations that exist, and create organizations where they don’t exist, as in the United States, and then mechanisms of public participation not to censor, but on the contrary, to liberate our creative people from the existing de facto global corporate censorship under which they work. Because the way to go is not just to ban and to limit, that is as useful and necessary as putting a bandaid on the end product instead of preventing the mass-production that creates the problem to begin with. So we have to think about how to design policies that will simply diversify production, that will provide more time, more money, more attention to the creative people, so they can portray life and the life of the imagination as talented people will, and in that case, violence would be reduced to its legitimate proportion and legitimate purposes.

23I hope we can discuss some of this later this afternoon, I have some information available for those of you who are interested, and I’d like to invite you to think about this, and if you’re interested talk to us later, and join us.


Professor and Dean Emeritus, The Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, U.S.A.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1997

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