TV execs ponder violence and responsibility

It’s a business, but it needs to be responsible, they say

St. Louis Post-DispatchJanuary 14, 2013 

— John Landgraf runs the FX network, home of some of basic cable’s most popular, and most violent, programming.

But Landgraf is also a father to three sons; the youngest is 9. When first-graders were massacred in a school in Newtown, Conn., in December, Landgraf was “upset and so horrified and sad and angry,” and he was also curious. He pondered, as many others did, whether violent content in television, movies and video games should take any blame for mass murders like those in Newtown; Aurora, Colo.; and elsewhere.

“I think anything and everything that bears any responsibility for these kinds of tragedies, up to and including what we do in the media, should be fair game and should be looked at,” Landgraf told TV critics meeting in Pasadena with broadcast and cable networks. But neither he nor other programmers would draw a direct line of cause and effect.

After the Newtown murders, some advocacy groups (including the National Rifle Association) laid blame on media. In a poll conducted by the Hollywood Reporter and Penn Schoen Berland, 44 percent of parents said the shootings made them more aware of how much violence their children are consuming in media, and 35 percent said Congress or the president should pressure Hollywood to cut back on violent content.

With the Newtown tragedy still so fresh, programmers quizzed by members of the Television Critics Association said they were sensitive to concerns about violent content. But television is a business, they repeated, and some of the most violent programs – including FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” about a murderous, drug-dealing biker gang, and “American Horror Story,” in which atrocities are committed in a mental asylum – are among the most popular.

“We’re in the culture business,” said Kevin Reilly, chief programmer for Fox, which will launch the graphically bloody serial killer drama “The Following” later this month. “It comes with responsibility.”

Reilly said he didn’t believe a direct link existed between violence on TV and a troubled young man’s murder spree. “But we take everything we do, everything we put on the air, with the utmost responsibility,” he said. “I have a lot of sleepless nights. Not only am I trying to get hits, but we’re trying … to find that line.”

The subject is much more complicated than simply saying we should clean up TV (or movies or games), Reilly said.

Fox, and any TV network, is “part of a much larger tapestry and a very complex media landscape where there is access 24 hours a day at your fingertips on the Web and on cable news, as well as all of the other entertainment and media choices, from gaming to television. … We have a responsibility and we have an FCC license, and we take that as seriously as we absolutely can.”

A series on serial killing

Kevin Williamson created “The Following,” in which acolytes to an imprisoned serial killer commit horrible murders in his name, while an FBI agent played by Kevin Bacon tracks them.

But Williamson, who created coming-of-age drama “Dawson’s Creek,” isn’t numb to real-life violence.

“We all worry about it,” he said. “I mean, who wasn’t affected by Sandy Hook or the one that I’m still disturbed when I think of it, Aurora? We sit in the writers’ room after that happened and we’re all traumatized by it.”

But, he said, “I’m writing fiction. I’m just a storyteller. And you think there’s this cumulative effect? I don’t know.”

‘Hannibal’ on NBC

At NBC, entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said, “We were all stricken as everyone was with that horrible tragedy, as well as all of the other tragedies that we’ve seen over the last few years. It weighs on all of us.”

NBC is “conscious of the amount of violence and the amount of edge in our shows,” Greenblatt said. On cable, “You can do all kinds of things that are no-holds-barred. There are a lot of parameters in broadcast television that we think about, not only as a company that has responsibilities to the FCC, but as people who have families.”

When he was at Showtime, Greenblatt developed the serial killer hit “Dexter,” and this summer he will bring “Hannibal,” about the notorious Hannibal Lecter, to NBC.

Still, “I’m not sure you can make the leap from a show about serial killers (to) the problem with violence in our country,” he said. “There’s many, many other factors, from mental illness to guns.”

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