Remarks of FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani
Before the Congress on Television Violence of Puerto Rico
October 12, 1999
It's wonderful to be with you again in the land of my birth. This was one of the first groups I spoke to after becoming an FCC Commissioner. During these past two years, I've made combatting media violence one of my top priorities. It's working with groups like this that make this fight worthwhile. I understand that President Clinton recently sent a letter to my good friend Senator Rodriguez, applauding the Congress for the work it has done. I'd like to add my heartfelt congratulations for your tremendous efforts over the past five years and your dedication to the cause.
I'd like to talk to you this morning about the problem of children and violence in the United States. The statistics are chilling. According to the Department of Justice, 19% of all arrests in 1997 were juveniles, including 14% of all murder arrests and 17% of all violent crime arrests. Just as alarming, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 5.9% of high school students carried a gun in the 30 days prior to the survey, and 8.5% of them carry some sort of weapon to school.
We hear statistics like that and ask: why? What has happened to our children? What has happened to the innocence of youth? Sometimes, like after the tragedy at Columbine High School, we try to come to grips with this crisis. That's when the finger-pointing starts. Guns are to blame. Parents are to blame. Video games. TV and movies. Rap music. Inadequate school security. Teenage angst. The list goes on and on.
There's probably some truth in all of these. Social problems like youth violence rarely have simple causes. Whenever the problem boils over, as it did in Columbine, it's probably some lethal cocktail of many things all going wrong at once.
I'd like to talk with you today about one contributing factor to the youth violence that's afflicting our nation -- violence on television. Again, I'm not saying that violence on TV is the main problem, or that we should ignore other root causes. But while TV violence is not the whole problem, I do believe it is part of the problem. The more risk factors we can reduce for our children, the fewer situations that will boil over into violence.
Violence on TV has become so prevalent, we've all become a bit numb. Children are exposed to 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on TV by the time they complete elementary school. A recent survey found that prime time TV viewers see a violent scene every four minutes. And a recent study by Children Now found that almost three-fourths of children ages 10-17 describe males on TV as violent.
But as troubling as those statistics are, they don't tell the whole story. Every day as many children are killed by guns in the U.S. as died at Columbine. But where are the headlines? Where are the magazine covers? Where are the talk shows sympathizing with the grieving loved ones of these victims? The problem with statistics is that they are bloodless. They're just numbers. It's too easy to forget the humanity behind them. I never thought I'd be quoting Stalin, but he understood this aspect of human psychology when he said "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."
So let me turn to a particular example of media violence and try and make this problem a little more concrete. I'd like to talk about wrestling, which has become nothing short of a phenomenon in the U.S. Just about every week, half of the top ten cable shows are wrestling. In fact, last May a wrestling show had the largest audience of any regularly scheduled entertainment show in cable history, with more than 6.1 million homes tuned in.
And now wrestling has invaded broadcast TV. The UPN Network, which may not be carried in Puerto Rico, now has a show called "WWF Smackdown!" on Monday nights at 8 p.m. UPN ran this ad in a recent trade publication proclaiming that wrestling has made them the #2 network on a Monday night in September among men 18-34 years of age, beating ABC, CBS and Fox. And it has increased their ratings among teens by 450%.
If you haven't seen wrestling lately, you're in for a surprise. It's gotten more and more outrageous. Men beating each other with metal chairs, trash cans and shovels. Wrestlers thrown out of the ring onto tables. Heads slammed on the ring steps. Lots of blood. Of course, it's all staged and no one really gets hurt.
So what's the problem? For adults, maybe there isn't one. Most adults probably recognize that it's all a big show, and that these wrestlers have undergone lots of training to make the violence look more real than it is. But children are a different story. Children under 17 make up at least a third of the audience for TV wrestling, including over a million kids under the age of 12. Indeed, as I stated before, the UPN ad boasts that wrestling has improved the network's numbers among teens by 450%.
Here's the problem with children watching those shows, according to one expert from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
"Pre-school-age and even early school-age kids don't differentiate well between what is acted and what is reality. Even older kids, if they see these behaviors, even if they know they are fake, if . . . they don't see any consequences to it, and there's no pain or injury or any effect or even a reaction, will imitate it and think it's fun and far less dangerous than it really is."
So children see wrestlers hitting each other with chairs only to return the next week good-as-new. There is violence, but no one gets hurt. There appears to be dangerous behavior, but there are no consequences. And it's not enough that the good guys usually win. The research shows that heroes and good guys who act violently actually pose more of a risk than villains because viewers are more likely to emulate and learn from characters who are perceived as attractive.
These dangers were tragically demonstrated by an event in Dallas, Texas this past May. A 7-year-old boy killed his 3-year-old brother by copying a wrestling move he saw on TV. According to the police, the older boy slammed his little brother to the floor with a running straight-armed punch to the neck, a move called a "clothesline" in the wrestling world. Asked to show what he had done, the boy ran at a life-size doll from about ten feet away. As he got close to the doll, he stuck out his arm at shoulder-height and struck the doll in the neck, knocking it backwards. The 3-year-old boy died from brain swelling caused by his head striking the family's concrete carpeted floor. The 7-year-old was devastated, crying to the police that he didn't mean to hurt his brother.
In our mass marketing culture, the violent messages are not confined to TV. They've even invaded our children's play. Toy companies now make "action figures" (which is what they call "dolls" for boys) based on all the TV wrestling stars. The Steve "Stone Cold" Austin action figure comes with his own metal folding chair for hitting opponents over the head. The Rock comes with a trash can and lid to use as weapons. And the Undertaker comes with his own shovel to swing at opponents and send them "to an early grave."
One has to wonder what these toy companies are thinking. It's not like the metal chair permits the child to use his or her imagination. Its sole purpose is to permit a child to imitate TV wrestlers by hitting another action figure over the head. As one educator put it, "If kids are saturated with media violence and they're given toys that are linked to that violence, then that's going to dictate their play."
As bad as that is, there's an even worse toy out there -- a line of talking wrestling action figures that are soft and almost two feet tall. Bend the doll's arm and he yells, in the wrestler's real voice, "Let go of my left [or right] arm!" Bend it harder and he yells "Oh my aching arm!" Pile-drive his head into the ground and he taunts "Aagh! Is that all you got?" The manufacturer markets this toy to children 4 years of age and up.
In some ways, there's nothing new here. Kids have always played violent games, like cowboys and Indians. But I think the intensity and level of violence have increased to a new and dangerous level. A fake duel at twenty paces with cap guns is far different than a clothesline to the throat. Just look at how far we've come in the past ten years alone. We've gone from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the late 1980's, to the Power Rangers in the mid-1990's, and now to TV wrestling. As one teacher said about Power Rangers, "The show says it is teaching about good and evil, but all the children seem to remember is the fight." The same seems to be true about wrestling.
Besides the overt violence, there's another aspect of the progression (or, more accurately, regression) from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to wrestling. Wrestling is meaner, coarser, cruder and nastier than the Turtles ever were. All of this spills over to our children as much as the outright violence. In Canada, educators complained that grade school kids were imitating TV wrestlers by grabbing their crotches and yelling "Suck it" - sometimes at their teachers. As one professor from the University of Virginia put it "Every time I think wrestling has reached rock bottom . . . [it] finds its way to a new moral depth." The professor then described how a recent plot line culminated in the champion holding a gun to the league owner's head in the center of the ring, as the well-dressed owner appeared to wet himself in terror.
All of this is to say that we should pay as much attention to what goes into our children's minds as what goes into their stomachs. When we glamorize wrestlers on lunch boxes and T-shirts, when we give our children toys that teach them to inflict pain, what messages are we sending? In this kind of environment, should we really be surprised when tragedies occur like the boy killing his brother in Dallas?
The easy thing to do is to blame the parents. We as a society can then wash our hands of the problem and not feel guilty about it. Parents shouldn't let their kids watch wrestling. Parents should supervise their kids' play better. Parents should teach their kids right from wrong; if they did, kids would know better than to let TV wrestling influence them.
I do think parents have the primary responsibility for teaching their children values and for keeping them out of trouble. But laying this all at the feet of parents, I believe, is unfair. Look at what parents are up against today. This is not the 1950's, when parents only had a few TV channels to worry about and Elvis Presley's shaking hips were considered scandalous. Now we have hundreds of TV channels. Video arcades. The Internet. VCRs. Portable stereos. Each trying to outdo each other to capture our kids' attention by being more lewd and outrageous than the next. Our information society has so many ways of getting into our children's heads that it's not realistic to expect parents to monitor them all.
As one expert argued:
Parents need help, not lectures about what they're doing wrong. . . . It takes a great deal of time, energy, and knowledge to make informed decisions about how to deal effectively with the endless barrage of entertainment violence in children's lives. Once the decisions are made it takes a great deal of skill putting them into practice with children in effective ways. Even when they try, parents report that no amount of effort can adequately protect their children from the violence that surrounds them. And what about those parents whose resources are already stretched to the limit providing for the basic needs of their families? Society should support parents in their efforts to do a good job, instead of placing hurdles in parents' way at every turn.
Put another way, we do everything to undermine parents' ability to keep their children out of trouble and then blame them when they fail. Instead of blaming parents, I think it's time we gave them a helping hand. Parents shouldn't have to constantly battle the larger culture in raising their kids. The culture should support parents, not undermine them.
That's why I'm so honored that the Chairman of the FCC asked me to lead the Commission's V-Chip Task Force. The V-Chip is a modern tool that will help parents do their job in the modern world. Right now, half of all sets sold in the U.S. with screens 13 inches and larger must have a V-Chip. By next January, all TV sets will have a V-Chip. That will permit parents in Puerto Rico and elsewhere to set their TV sets to block programming that they don't want their children to see.
I should warn you, however, that the system is not yet fully operational. For the V-Chip to work, the broadcast or cable network must encode the ratings information in what's called the "Vertical Blanking Interval" of the television signal. This is different than, and in addition to, the ratings icon I'm sure you've all seen at the beginning of many shows. While most networks are already encoding their programs so that the V-Chip can work, some aren't. Here in Puerto Rico, you should know that Telemundo is not yet encoding its ratings, nor is Comedy Central, which runs the graphic show "South Park." These networks should be operational sometime next year. Until then, you won't be able to block programming on those networks using the V-Chip.
There are other things we can do to help parents. Those who produce shows should show some restraint when children are likely to be in the audience. Let me give you an example. Some of you may have heard about a high-speed chase that occurred on a California highway last year. The news coverage began at about 3 in the afternoon -- when lots of young children were watching television -- and was carried live by stations throughout the Los Angeles area. The stations cut into their regular programming - including cartoons - to cover this story. You may recall that the event ended tragically, with the man putting a shotgun to his chin and killing himself on live TV. Given the time of day, and the lack of any real newsworthy event that required live coverage, I think the station could have and should have spared the children of L.A. the vision of watching a man blow his brains out.
At a minimum, we should stop targeting our children with violence. How can toy manufacturers target 4 and 5 year-old children with dolls that aren't much smaller than their playmates, and that encourage them to inflict bodily harm? And why do networks carry wrestling when lots of children are in the audience, rather than in a later time slot? USA Network and TNT carry wrestling at 7 p.m.; UPN runs wrestling at 8. From UPN's ad, they're obviously proud of the number of teens who are watching - up 450%. One has to believe these networks also know how many younger fans they have as well. After all, toy manufacturers wouldn't make wrestling action figures for 4 and 5 year-olds if there was no market for them.
Finally, I believe we need more counter-programming to the violence on TV. And I'm not talking about town hall meetings or panel discussions about the problems of violence. I'm talking about counter-programming that reaches kids on the same emotional level that the shows glamorizing violence do. That kind of gut-level counter-attack worked for cigarettes, drunk driving and drugs. There's no reason it can't be used just as effectively in the fight against violence.
Some networks have begun to address the challenge. MTV, for instance, has begun a campaign entitled "Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence." As part of that campaign, they have aired, and will be airing, several programs, including:
n "Scared Straight! 1999," an update of the award-winning documentary in which a group of troubled young people visit a prison to see the actual consequences of a life of violence.
n "Unfiltered: Violence from the Eyes of Youth," which puts cameras in the hands of young people to document the violence in their lives.
I think it would be useful to run a public service announcement during wrestling showing the real-life consequences when kids imitate their favorite TV wrestlers. Showing kids in a cast or a neck brace would do a lot more to offset the violent message of TV wrestling than a disclaimer telling kids "don't try this at home."
It's time that we pay more attention to violence in the U.S., especially when it comes to our children. We worry about their exposure to sex; we even protect them from exposure to too many commercials. It's time we add violence to that list. I know you will continue to do your part to make that happen. To paraphrase Albert Camus - perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children suffer. But we can reduce the number of suffering children. And if you believers don't help, who else in the world can help us do this?
Thank you again for inviting me.