Thirty years ago, in the first hour of an eight-part miniseries, the audience witnessed female frontal nudity and heard insinuations of rape and violence, which proved to be mere portents of the more graphic displays to come. This was shown in prime time, on broadcast television, and—what's more—children were encouraged by parents and schoolteachers to watch it.
The series was Roots, which made human and visceral the horrors of slavery in America. It was a landmark achievement in the melding of entertainment and history through the power of network television. But it also coursed with sex and violence, themes that were conflated in one of the series's most disturbing scenes: The slave Kunta Kinte, who has tried to escape from a plantation several times, is given a choice by his captors: As punishment, he can lose to the blade either a foot or his genitals.
The example of Roots has been raised several times during the past few years in the ongoing debate over whether the government should regulate what many see as the coarsening content of broadcast television. Last year, a divided Federal Communications Commission was given the power to curtail programming it considers indecent through the leverage of a 10-fold increase in fines. The FCC is now close to releasing a report—this time, perhaps, with unanimous consent—that could ask Congress to give it the authority to regulate violent programming as well.
The National Journal reported April 4 that the five FCC commissioners—three Republicans and two Democrats—will approve a document that "could pave the way for regulating violent television content." Commissioners Robert McDowell (R) and Jonathan Adelstein (D), however, want the report to stress the limitations to government interference, the report said.
No one knows exactly when the report will be released. A spokesperson for the commission has not returned Back Stage's calls for comment.
Proponents of greater regulation say it is necessary to protect children from harm. They cite numerous studies, beginning with a 1972 Surgeon General's report, that indicate a correlation between violent behavior in young people and the images they see on television. Opponents contend that not only are those studies specious but such a move is tantamount to censorship; further, they argue, what American culture would lose by increased regulation is not a gratuitous murder scene from a police drama, but contextualized violence that is vital to the telling of a story, particularly one as affecting—and, some might say, important—as Roots.
It is unclear what the effect on artists would be if such regulation were enacted. Pamm Fair, deputy national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, said: "We're interested in seeing the report…. We would like to see how this would specifically impact actors and how they perform roles." Tom Carpenter, director of legislative affairs for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, said the union does not have an official position because its members would not be directly affected if a bill giving the FCC greater power were passed into law.
"We have a general concern whenever there is a threat to artistic integrity and freedom of expression, but we have a fair number of legislative issues that are…taking priority at this point," said Carpenter, who added, "The organization doesn't ever want to appear to be standing in the way of protecting children."
The Writers Guild of America will not comment until it sees the report, a spokesperson said.
In last year's battle over indecency, AFTRA and SAG successfully lobbied against a provision in a House bill that would have called for hefty fines against individual performers. Carpenter does not anticipate such a provision in the legislation proposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has been the leading Democrat in the Senate calling for greater regulation.
Jonathan Rintels is a television writer and president of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, a nonprofit group that advocates for a broader diversity in the country's culture. He opposes greater government regulation of the airwaves and challenges the idea that there is a link between violent images and violent acts. "At a time that these pressure groups claim that violence on television has increased 75 percent, the FBI crime statistics on violence in America over the last 10 years show violence has gone down 17.6 percent," he said. "So where's the connection?"
Tim Winter is the president of the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that has monitored the airwaves and other media since 1995; it is also one of the organizations that has called for the strengthening of indecency regulations. In general, Winter said, he does not want more government interference: "I would love for the industry not to force legislation on us." However, he added, the entertainment community has a disregard for many parents and their children—so much that legislation "is an inevitability if the industry doesn't improve."
Rintels and other opponents of more regulation—namely, the American Civil Liberties Union—have said parental oversight and technology that blocks specific programs are the best ways to keep kids from potentially disturbing images. Winter and Rockefeller contend that technology and the information campaigns to show parents how to use it have been ineffective.
The knotty debate puts William Blinn in a curious position: He is a member of the advisory board of the Parents Television Council, and he is one of the Emmy-winning writers who adapted Roots for television. As a writer, Blinn sees the value of graphic images in storytelling. Of the miniseries, he said, "The violence had consequences. It wasn't sanitized or glamorized. [It showed] the effects of violence upon the person inflicting the violence."
However, Blinn said, violence and sexual innuendo on broadcast television are increasing, and he laments the loss of the first hour of prime time as the so-called family hour, when he believes creative, nuanced stories that appeal to all ages can be told. Of violence, he says, "The more we see of it, the more we are willing to accept it—if we're painting it without results. It is corrosive…. It's absolutely a volatile and undecided issue to me."
Blinn sees legislation as "a last resort" to correcting the problem. "I would much prefer to inculcate the industry with a greater awareness of responsibility to what we're putting out," he said. "I must say, I don't see a big move or response within the industry that leads me to be optimistic about it."