Soon after news broke of the horrific December 14 elementary-school shootings in Newtown, Conn., the broadcast and cable networks scoured their schedules for anything that might be deemed offensive or inappropriate in light of the massacre.
"Caution carries the day," says one network executive. "You look up and down the schedule for shows and promos that might be uncomfortably close to the subject matter. Then you ask yourself, 'Are we being sensitive in a correct way or are we being overly careful?'"
As a result, Fox pre-empted episodes of Family Guy and American Dad, and Syfy bumped Haven, which included scenes of violence at a high school. USA swapped out episodes of shows like NCIS, while CBS switched out a CSI repeat. History pulled an airing of the gun-centric reality show Sharp Shooters. And Showtime erred on the side of caution and ran disclaimers in front of Homeland and Dexter, shows that both feature a body count.
That's not all: TLC's Best Funeral Ever, which spotlights wacky burials, was set to premiere December 27 and was pushed to January 6. Discovery, which had already quietly canceled American Guns earlier this year, confirmed the news (leading some gun enthusiasts to accuse the channel of making a knee-jerk decision). And Fox replaced edgy promos for its upcoming serial killer drama The Following with less graphic images.
In the wake of a tragedy like Newtown, "these things are going to come up," one exec notes. And it doesn't have to be man-made violence. In 2011, Fox postponed a night of hurricane-themed episodes of Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show in the wake of a series of deadly tornadoes in the South.
It's not the first time mass murder has forced the networks to alter their schedules. When those killings take place at a school and involve children, programmers are doubly sensitive to pull any depictions of kids in danger, regardless of context. "If we had an episode about a school shooting," the exec says, "I'm not sure when we'd put it back on."
The Columbine High School shootings in April 1999 occurred a week before The WB was scheduled to air the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Earshot," which included hints of a potential mass murder planned at a school. The episode was delayed until the following fall.
These exercises are a reminder that violent images are a TV mainstay — and viewers eat them up. Crime procedurals are among the longest-running and highest-rated shows on TV, and The Walking Dead, with its gruesome images of zombie mayhem, was the fall's No. 1 series among young adults.
TV Goes Dark: Inside the Networks' Twisted New Shows
A few weeks ago, TV Guide Magazine examined the rash of dark dramas coming to primetime in midseason, including The Following, The CW's Cult and NBC's Hannibal. Those stylistic thrillers, complete with anti-heroes and edgy adult storylines, are tailor-made to compete with cable. But then came Newtown.
Most of the public debate in the days after the Newtown killings focused on the nation's gun laws and mental health services. But the culpability of pop culture — particularly violent video games — also entered the conversation.
The White House has referenced "cultural issues" while discussing President Obama's plans to address gun violence. In a statement, the Motion Picture Association of America's Chris Dodd said, "Those of us in the motion picture and television industry want to do our part to help America heal. We stand ready to be part of the national conversation."
Studies, however, remain inconclusive about the causal relationship between violent entertainment and real-life violence. While groups like the American Medical Association have raised concerns, others note that U.S. programming is viewed globally (CSI and NCIS are two of the world's most-watched shows), yet other countries haven't witnessed an epidemic of mass shootings like in the United States.
"Violence in movies, TV, videogames and music inevitably gets accused of 'coarsening the culture,' and there's no doubt that it has — at least, in terms of boundaries regarding what's acceptable," Variety columnist Brian Lowry argued last week in the trade journal. "That said, there's a big difference between being coarse and homicidal, especially in the destructive way assault weapons can be."
Former CBS executive Jim McKairnes told the Los Angeles Times that he raised a red flag internally about TV violence, particularly on Criminal Minds, but to no avail. "I was never so naive when I worked at CBS as to think I was part of a nonprofit think thank or public-advocacy group," McKairnes told the newspaper. "But in that I was surrounded there for so long by seemingly smart, well-intentioned people, I always landed somewhere between surprised and disappointed when it came to the lack of discussions about our role in the use of the public airwaves or our effect on viewers."
In a follow-up interview with TV Guide Magazine, McKairnes recounted an exchange he had with another CBS executive soon after screening the Criminal Minds pilot. "When the Criminal Minds pilot screened for critics and touched off a round of criticism for its violence, I emailed an article from USA Today that asked something like 'What is it with CBS and its penchant for killing naked women?' to an executive on my floor who oversaw one or two of the dramas being singled out," McKairnes says. "When he saw me that afternoon he said, 'Jim, what are you doing, teeing off against your own network's shows? Get on the team, man. Besides, in the case of my show, that girl wasn't naked. She was in her underwear. So that critic doesn't know what he's talking about.'"
There's a bit of hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle when it comes to guns, violence and TV. Liberal-leaning Hollywood execs are likely proponents for more gun control — even as weapons are proliferate in their fare. Meanwhile, conservative NRA proponents defend every drop of the Second Amendment yet turn around and demand gun control on the TV screen. A press conference held December 21 by NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, in which he trashed Hollywood's depictions of violence before calling for armed guards in every school, was widely criticized for being tone-deaf.
TV's quick action to pull some programming earned it praise from an unlikely source: The Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that normally criticizes TV content (but focuses mostly on language and nudity issues, not violence). However, the group then asked, "If a television network changes its programming because of content that could be insensitive today, why would that same content be appropriate at a later time?"
Perhaps because the shows that were preempted really have little relation to what happened in Newtown, says producer and former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield. "TV will be for some a scapegoat," he says. "Obviously broadcasters don't want to in some way encourage violence. But we know we live in a society where there are violent people and they'll use anything for motivation for their act. TV can't be the dumping ground for the problem."
TV content ratings went into effect in 1997, and while the system has its critics (the PTC recently criticized AMC for its Walking Dead rating), it did somewhat temper concerns over TV violence now that shows are labeled and viewers aren't caught off guard by such images. Network standards and practices also remain vigilant with certain rules. For example, Littlefield says characters can't point a gun directly into the camera and fire.
Crime dramas remind us that there are consequences to violent acts, Littlefield contends. "We need the sense that this is not a pretend world," he says. "When a criminal fires a gun at someone, they bleed and die. It's our responsibility to make that real. That doesn't glorify criminal behavior."
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