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Research on sex, violence, and profanity on Television

TV Bloodbath: Violence on Prime Time Broadcast TV
A PTC State of the Television Industry Report


I.  Introduction

The Debate is Over

Concerns about the impact of television violence on society are almost as old as the medium itself.  As early as 1952, the United States House of Representatives was holding hearings to explore the impact of television violence and concluded that the "television broadcast industry was a perpetrator and a deliverer of violence." [1]   In 1972 the Surgeon General's office conducted an overview of existing studies on television violence and concluded that it was "a contributing factor to increases in violent crime and antisocial behavior." [2]  In his testimony to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld said, ""It is clear to me that the causal relationship between televised violence and antisocial behavior is sufficient to warrant appropriate and immediate remedial action… There comes a time when the data are sufficient to justify action.  That time has come."[3]

Over the years, there have been literally hundreds of studies examining the connection between media violence and violence in real-life, the results of which were summarized in a joint statement signed by representatives from six of the nation's top public health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Medical Association:  "Well over 1000 studies… point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.  The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children." [4]

Today, the connection between media violence and aggressive and violent behavior in real life has been so well documented, that for many, the question is settled.  In fact, a position paper by the American Psychiatric Association on media violence begins by declaring: "The debate is over." [5]  According to Jeffrey McIntyre, legislative and federal affairs officer for the American Psychological Association, "To argue against it is like arguing against gravity." [6]

Earlier this year at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on neurobiological research and the impact of media on children, Dr. Michael Rich, Director of the Center on Media and Children's Health at the Children's Hospital of Boston testified that the correlation between violent media and aggressive behavior "is stronger than that of calcium intake and bone mass, lead ingestion and lower IQ, condom non-use and sexually acquired HIV, and environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer, all associations that clinicians accept as fact, and on which preventive medicine is based without question." [7]

The Impact of Media Violence

Television can be profoundly influential in shaping an impressionable child or adolescent's values, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. Television reaches children at a younger age and for more time than any other socializing influence, except family.  The average child spends 25 hours a week watching television, more time than they spend in school or engaged in any other activity except sleep.  Is it any wonder then that children so readily absorb the messages that are presented to them?

So what is the cumulative impact of 25 hours of television a week? 

It is estimated that by the time an average child leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed 8,000 murders and over 100,000 other acts of violence.  By the time that child is 18 years-of-age; he or she will witness 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders.[8]  One 17-year longitudinal study concluded that teens who watched more than one hour of TV a day were almost four times as likely as other teens to commit aggressive acts in adulthood.[9] 

Television teaches viewers – especially young viewers, who have more difficulty discriminating between real life and fantasy – that violence is the accepted way we solve problems. Moreover, studies show that the more real-life the violence portrayed, the greater the likelihood that it will be learned.[10]

And while it's true that not every child who is exposed to a lot of televised violence is going to grow up to be violent, "every exposure to violence increases the chances that some day a child will behave more violently than they otherwise would,"[11] according to Dr. L. Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan.

Violent entertainment leaves a mark, even on children who don't engage in aggressive behaviors. Witnessing repeated violent acts increases general feelings of hostility[12] and can lead to desensitization and a lack of empathy for human suffering. Over time, consumption of violence-laden imagery can leave viewers with the perception that they are living in a mean and dangerous world, giving them an unrealistically dark view of life[13].

For children who do act out aggressively, the results can be deadly.  Week after week, newspapers are filled with blood-chilling accounts of children committing copy-cat crimes inspired by the latest horror film or violent video game.

The Slippery Slope of TV Violence

Entertainment violence is a slippery slope.  With repeated exposure, even the most gruesome and grisly depictions of violence eventually seem tame.  In time, viewers become desensitized, so Hollywood has to keep pushing the envelope in order to elicit the same reaction.

Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, explains: "Violence is like the nicotine in cigarettes.  The reason why the media has to pump ever more violence into us is because we've built up a tolerance.  In order to get the same high, we need ever-higher levels…the television industry has gained its market share through an addictive and toxic ingredient.[14]"

Yet, despite the mountains of research, the consensus of the medical community, and a growing list of casualties from copy-cat crimes, Hollywood continues to produce increasingly graphic and gory entertainment products, all the while denying any culpability for the violent behaviors their products inspire.

Popular entertainment came under intense scrutiny after the tragic April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, as published reports pointing to the Columbine killers' fondness for first-person-shooter video games and the eerie similarities between the murders and certain violent films began to emerge.  There were a handful of media mea culpas as some in the entertainment industry grudgingly conceded that there might be a lose connection to violent entertainment products.  Even CBS President Leslie Moonves conceded "anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with [the bloodshed at Columbine] is an idiot."

But has anything really changed?  Is television today any less violent than it was in 1999? In the past couple of years, attention to this issue all but disappeared as our national consciousness has, understandably, turned to external threats.  Has Hollywood taken advantage of this paradigm shift to start reintroducing violent content to prime time network television?

II. Study Parameters and Methodology

PTC analysts examined all prime time entertainment series on the major broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN and the WB) from the first two weeks of the 1998, 2000, and 2002 November sweeps periods.  The ITV network was not included in this analysis because the network was launched just a few months before the first study period and had limited original programming in 1998 and 2000.  A total of 400 program hours were analyzed.

Television broadcasts of movies, news, and sports programs were not included in this analysis.

PTC analysts reviewed the programs for all instances of violence.  Mild forms of violence included threats of violence, mayhem or pyrotechnics (fires, explosions, car crashes), deaths implied, and fist fights or martial arts fights.  More extreme examples of violence included use of guns or other weapons, depiction of blood, graphic depictions (e.g. a dismembered body), deaths depicted, and torture.

III.  Statistical Overview

  • Overall, violence increased in every time slot between 1998 and 2002.  On all the networks combined, violence was 41% more frequent during the 8:00 p.m. (ET/PT) Family Hour in 2002 than in 1998.

  • UPN and Fox had the highest rate of violence during the Family Hour in 2002, with 7.5 and 4.67 instances per hour respectively.  ABC had the largest percentage increase during the Family Hour, going from .13 instances per hour in 1998 to 2 instances per hour in 2002 (an increase of more than 1400%).

  •  The WB and CBS had the least violence, both in terms of absolute numbers and per-hour rates during the Family Hour in 2002, with .11 and .21 instances per hour respectively.

  • CBS and the WB were also the only networks to show any improvement during the Family Hour.  CBS reduced Family Hour violence by 73.4%, going from a rate of .79 instances of violence per hour in 1998 to .21 instances per hour in 2002.  The WB network went from 2.5 instances of violence per hour during the Family Hour in 1998 to 2.08 instances per hour in 2000, to .11 instances per hour in 2002.  Overall, WB showed a 95.6% decrease in violence from 1998 to 2002. That drop can be attributed almost entirely to the fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer moved from the WB network to UPN in 2001.

  • During the second hour of prime time (9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), violence was 134.4% more frequent in 2002 than in 1998.  During the third hour of prime time (10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT) violent content was nearly 63% more common in 2002 than in 1999.

  • Violent content was found to become more common in later hours of prime time.  Violence was 149% more frequent during the second hour of prime time than during the Family Hour in 2002. Fights were 16% more common; graphic depictions increased in frequency from .02 instances per hour during the Family Hour to .54 instances per hour during the 9:00 p.m. (ET/PT) time slot; and depictions of death increased from .13 instances per hour to .87 during the second hour of prime time.

  • The WB, UPN, and CBS had the highest per-hour rates for violence during the second hour of prime time.  On the WB, violence spiked from an average of 1 instance per hour in 1998 to 6.7 instances per hour in 2002 (an increase of 570%).  UPN had the largest increase, going from .13 instances per hour in 1998 to 6.6 instances per hour in 2002 (an increase of nearly 5,000%). CBS had the smallest increase, with 5 instances per hour in 1998 and 6.5 instances of violence per hour in 2002 for an increase of 30%.  NBC was the only network to improve during the second hour of prime time, going from 3.14 instances of violence per hour in 1998 to 1.33 instances per hour in 2002 for a decrease of 57.6%.

  • Only three broadcast networks continue their program feed into the 10:00 hour: ABC, CBS, and NBC.  All three of those networks showed a small increase in depictions of violence during that hour from 1998 to 2002.  ABC aired 27% more violence in 2002; CBS aired 37.8% more violence; and NBC aired 78.5% more violence in 2002 than in 1998. CBS had the highest rate of violence during the 10:00 hour in 2002 at 8.1 instances per hour.  ABC had the lowest, at 3 instances per hour.

  • In qualitative terms, television violence seemed to have become more graphic over time.  In 1998 the most common form of TV violence during all hours of prime time was fist fights or martial arts fights (where no one was killed).  By 2002, these relatively mild fight sequences became less frequent and were supplanted by more frequent use of guns or other weapons. In 1998, 44% of all violent scenes during the Family Hour were mild fight sequences compared to 32% in 2002.  In 1998, 29% of all violent sequences included the use of guns or other weapons.  By 2002, that number increased to 38%.

Other Findings:

  • Use or depictions of blood in violent scenes were more common in the Family Hour in 2002 than in 2000 on ABC, NBC, and UPN (there were no depictions of blood within the study period in 1998 during the Family Hour).  Fox had no change (with .33 instances per hour both years), and CBS and WB actually presented fewer violent scenes with blood in 2002 than in 2000. 

  • Looking at the second hour of prime time, violent scenes containing depictions of blood were 141% more common in 2002 than in 1998.  ABC, CBS, Fox, and UPN all had more frequent depictions of blood during this time slot in 2002 than in 1998.  NBC had 31.2% fewer depictions of blood in 2002 than in 1998. 

  • On the whole, the use of guns and other weapons in Family Hour programs increased by 85.1% between 1998 and 2002, although some individual networks did show some improvement.  ABC, Fox, and UPN all had more scenes containing guns or other weapons in 2002 than in 1998, NBC, CBS, and the WB had fewer. 

  • During the second hour of prime time there was a 200% increase in scenes depicting the use of guns or other weapons between 1998 and 2002.  NBC was the only network to reduce the frequency of such scenes during this time slot by 2002.  CBS remained constant at 1.4 instances per hour of gun play or use of other weapons in both 1998 and 2002.

  • The per-hour rate of deaths depicted has slowly climbed since 1998 in every time slot.  During the Family Hour in 1998, there were .06 deaths depicted per hour.  By 2002, that number reached .13.  During the second hour of prime time in 1998, there were .35 deaths depicted per hour.  By 2002, it had increased to .87.  During the 10:00 p.m. (ET/PT) time slot, deaths depicted per hour rose from .23 to 1.7.

IV. Examples


Examples from 8-9:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Brimstone -- 11/06/98 8:00 p.m. Fox

A rapist who escaped from hell comes into a woman's bedroom wearing a devil mask.  He wrestles with the woman, tossing her into a glass table, then onto the bed.  He jumps on top of her on the bed.  She is holding a gun, and shoots him several times in the chest at point blank range.  The gun shots have no effect on him.  It is implied that he goes on to rape her.

Zeke attempts to send the rapist back to hell by shooting him in the eyes, but to no avail.  Zeke later corners the rapist.  He picks up a garden spade and is shown thrusting it downward several times (presumably into the rapist's head, thereby destroying his eyes and sending him back to hell).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- 11/17/98 8:00 p.m. WB

Buffy beheads a demon with a battle axe.

Examples from 9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

The X-Files – 11/15/98 9:00 p.m. Fox

A woman bangs her head against the glass window of a police car.  All of a sudden, blood spatters against the window and the woman collapses in the back seat of the police car.  Investigators discover that her head exploded.

Millennium -- 11/06/98 9:00 p.m. Fox

Agent Hollis walks into an empty house.  In a back room she finds what appears to be an autopsy table.  She goes through another door, and finds a room that appears to be covered in blood.  There is a hose of some kind that is dripping blood, the walls appear to be coated in blood, and on the wall there is a meat hook.  On a table she sees a pair of bloody gloves, bloody knives, etc... There is a tub that appears to be full of blood.  Hollis sees a skull on a table.

Diagnosis Murder 11/05/98 9:00 p.m. CBS

A woman stabs her publisher in the chest during an argument. He falls back into his chair, the knife sticking out of his chest and blood running down his shirt. He dies.

Examples from 10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

NYPD Blue -- 11/17/98 10:00 p.m. ABC

A police officer at a crime scene tells Andy that the victim is an old woman who has been hacked to pieces. Andy walks in to the apartment.  There are blood stains on the walls and on the floor.  He lifts the plastic sheet that is covering her.  An old woman is shown with blood covering her head, hair, chest, and pooled on the floor beside her.

Jimmy: "God, look at this."

Greg: "That's her foot... Oh, here's both her feet here."

Andy: "Got to find her hands too."

The camera pans down her arm, showing bloody stumps.

Jimmy: "I got one."

Andy: "I want to meet the son of a bitch that did this."

Jimmy: "There's no broken fingers or nails."

Greg: "I only hope hitting her with the bat came first."

Jimmy: "Son of a bitch, son of a bitch."

Profiler – 11/14/98 10:00 p.m. NBC

Raymond places a sheet of plastic over his mother's face and begins to suffocate her. She is trying to fight back, but Raymond is overpowering her. He has his hands on the side of her head, pulling the plastic tightly over her face. She struggles to breath, and we can hear her gasping for air. 


Examples from 8-9:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- 11/14/00 8:00 p.m. WB

Buffy fights a vampire in the graveyard. She kicks him to the ground.  She then knocks him onto a gravestone. When Buffy goes to stake him, he pushes the stake into her abdomen. Buffy is shown again with the stake in her.  There is blood on her sweater and her hands.  We see her pull the stake out of her body.

Boston Public – 11/13/00 8:00 p.m. Fox

Two boys get in a fight in the classroom.  One of the boys bites a piece of the other boy's ear off.  The victim stands up, blood running all over his shirt. The biter spits the piece of ear out of his mouth and it hits Harvey in the forehead.

Examples from 9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

City of Angels – 11/02/00 9:00 p.m. CBS

Damon goes into Gwen's house and attacks her.  She is only wearing a bra and panties and she screams for help.  He throws her against the bed and gets on top of her.  He smacks her across the face. He chokes her and continues to beat her on the face. Gwen's brother Curtis come into the house and attacks Damon.  They beat on each other and glass breaks and they use lamps and pieces of furniture to hit each other.  Damon pulls a knife on Curtis.  Curtis flips Damon off the balcony and Damon falls below, dead. Damon is shown dead on the ground and there's a large pool of blood under his face.

C.S.I. – 11/10/00 9:00 p.m. CBS

There is a flashback of Amy killing Fay.  Fay is thrown into a big fish tank.  After Fay falls to the floor, Amy hits her in the head with a pick axe.

The X Files – 11/05/00 9:00 p.m. Fox

Mulder is being tortured.  A metal circular saw is cutting his chest open.  He screams and blood flies everywhere as the saw cuts into his chest.

Examples from 10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

ER – 11/02/00 10:00 p.m. NBC

Luka slams a mugger into an iron gate, then slams the mugger's head into concrete until it bleeds.

The District – 11/04/00 10:00 p.m. CBS

A man strangles a cab driver with a piece of rope.


Examples from 8-9:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – 11/05/02 8:00 p.m. WB

Buffy and a demon are fighting.  She throws a hatchet at him, which becomes planted in his chest.  He falls to the ground.  

Providence – 11/01/02 8:00 p.m. NBC

A man is shown with a knife in his chest.  Blood is spreading around the wound. Kim yanks the knife out of the man's chest.

Charmed – 11/10/02 8:00 p.m. WB

A warlock named Bacarra needs a fresh human heart to complete his potion to vanquish the witches.  He puts a witch to sleep and takes her heart out while she is still alive.  Her eyes widen as Bacarra reaches into her chest.  The sounds of his hand penetrating her flesh can be heard.  He is shown holding her heart in his hand.

Examples from 9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

C.S.I. -- 10/31/02 9:00 p.m. CBS

Gil cuts a finger off of a man's dead body, takes out the bone, puts the finger over one of his own and makes a fingerprint with it.

The District – 11/02/02 9:00 p.m. CBS

In a flashback sequence a man inside a subway kills Mannion's friend by shooting him at point-blank range.

Angel – 11/03/02 9:00 p.m.  WB

Charles kills Professor Seidel by breaking his back and pushes him into a portal that will send him to a hell dimension.

Examples from 10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Boomtown – 11/03/02 10:00 p.m. NBC

Fearless shoots Vadim in the head.  He falls with a bullet wound in the center of his forehead.

C.S.I. Miami – 11/04/02 10:00 p.m. CBS

Adam shoots at his brother underwater with a spear gun.  Blood flows out of the wound.  The brother turns on Adam and stabs him in the stomach with a knife, killing him.

 V. Conclusion and Recommendations

"The use of horror for its own sake will be eliminated; the use of visual or aural effects which would shock or alarm the viewer, and the detailed presentation of brutality or physical agony by sight or by sound are not permissible." – The Television Code of the National Association of Broadcasters


Television is an invited guest into the family home, and for that reason, broadcasters have a special obligation to take care with the messages and images they present.  There was a time when broadcasters took that obligation seriously.  Until fairly recently, television broadcasters adhered to a voluntary code of conduct, the Television Code, which was rooted in a desire to show the "highest standards of respect for the American home."

Even though the code fell out of use more than twenty years ago, it is sadly apparent that broadcasters no longer have any interest in showing respect for the American home.  They have used the broadcast airwaves to deliver messages that poison impressionable young minds.  Despite the obvious concerns of millions of parents, public policy and medical experts, depictions of violence on prime time broadcast television have become more common and increasingly graphic, and there doesn't appear to be an end in sight.  Broadcasters will continue to push the envelope with TV violence as long and as far as they are able.  The only way to reverse this trend is for viewers to push back.

Today TV sponsors play a significant part in determining what broadcast standards are.  Their ability to influence programming decisions is potentially far greater than that of the Federal Communications Commission, TV viewers, or even network's own standards and practices departments. According to David Stanley, producer of Comedy Central's The Man Show, "There was a time when the airwaves were a public trust, and the television code was enforcing it.  People were worried about losing their licenses.  Today, if there's a real difference, the line is being drawn almost exclusively by the advertising industry.  [If] advertisers are willing to buy time on shows with more risqué content, they will go ahead and [sell] it."  Advertisers must use this unique position of influence to encourage greater restraint in the depictions of violence on prime time broadcast TV.

Although broadcast affiliates are tightly constrained by affiliation agreements, they do still play an important role in standing up for community standards.  Community concerns about TV violence must be communicated by the affiliate to the broadcast network, and the affiliates need to exert their right to preempt programming that violates their community's standards.  

Lawmakers have been concerned with the problem of media violence since 1952, but there are no laws on the books prohibiting or restricting depictions of violence on television.  Without an enforcement mechanism, Congress has no real power to force the entertainment industry to address the problem.  Perhaps it is time, as Senator Sam Brownback and FCC commissioner Michael Copps suggested earlier this year, for the FCC to make a priority of reducing TV violence and to expand the definition of broadcast indecency to include violence.

[1] U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Marketing Violence to Children, 106th Cong., 2nd sess., 13 September, 2000. 

[2] Mifflin, Lawrie. "Many Researchers Say Link is Already Clear on Media and Youth Violence." The New York Times 9 May 1999.

[3]Subcomm. on Communications of the Senate Comm. on Commerce,  Surgeon General's Report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, 92nd Cong., 2nd sess., 21 March, 1972.

[6] Mifflin.

[7] Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space of the Senate Comm. On Commerce, Neurobiological Research and the Impact of Media on Children, 108th  Cong., 1st sess., 10 March, 2003

[8] Huston, A.C. et al. Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

[9] Jeffrey Johnson et al. "Television Viewing and Aggressive Behavior During Adolescence and Adulthood," Science 295

(March 29, 2002): 2468–2471.

[10] Committee on Public Education. "Media Violence."  Pediatrics. 108. 5 (2001): 1222-26.

[11] Mifflin.

[13] Goodale, Gloria.  "Battles Over Media Violence Move To a New Frontier: The Internet," The Christian Science Monitor 18 November 1996: 10.

[14] Madigan, Tim.  "TV Shows and Video Games Teach Children to Kill, Psychologist Says," Fort Worth Star-Telegram 10 May 1999.

Statistical Appendix | Executive Summary | Printable Version


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