From Watching ‘Parenthood’ To Regulating Gun Magazines, How TV Executives Are Coping With Violence

FX President John Landgraf.

At the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif. this week, network executives have been fielding a great number of questions about violence in the media in the wake of the Newtown shootings. This is a difficult line for critics to walk, because I don’t know anyone who’s been asking those questions who believes that there’s a causal relationship between media violence and mass killings, or who is asking those questions because they want to shift the focus from gun control efforts to media censorship. But I do think that the Newtown killings crystallized for many of us a sense of burnout we’d been feeling about a sense in American television that the only stakes that are a legitimate subject for prestige television are life-and-death ones.

This is a judgement about aesthetic monotony rather than a moral argument, or a bit of policy advocacy. And as we’ve asked those questions over the past few days, it’s been intriguing to see how the executives of different television networks have responded, and particularly whether they’ve focused on the moral implications of their content, or the creative ones.

NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt made the pitch that after the horrible events of Newtown “the best tonic for not to be glib, but for this kind of thing is go watch an episode of Parenthood as a really great example of a show about a family who love each other and grapple with all of the issues in life,” he argued. In recent years, as the intensity of television has ratcheted up, networks have often pitched their shows as a very different kind of escapism, into dangerous worlds and risky scenarios that we’d never actually confront for ourselves, as a way to put our problems in proportion. Greenblatt here was making a different argument (and an attempt to boost a critically-loved but under-watched drama on his network): that television, by going simpler, can actually help us grapple with the things that we are feeling. This is worth taking with a grain of salt, of course. NBC’s biggest scripted drama right now is the very silly sci-fi show Revolution, about a dubiously-relevant post-apocalypse. But it was still nice to hear Greenblatt muse, even self-interestedly, about what pop culture is for, and to hear a reminder that escapism can be a small journey rather than a great leap.

Both Greenblatt and Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly cited their responsibilities to the FCC in their answers, but didn’t really discuss what that responsibility consisted of. That have been an interesting turn, given the relative amounts of attention paid to networks’ bottom lines, which keep them in business, and to their community obligations, the long-ago rationale for them to get broadcasting bandwidth. The FCC’s regulation of violence has also been dramatically less rigorous than its regulation of sex, a regulatory disparity that’s obviously affected the market as well.

But Reilly focused instead on the necessity, in his job, of being responsive to shifts in public attitudes and demand. “We’re in the culture business,” he said. “You are constantly monitoring cultural shifts, current events, shifts in mores, things that reflect society — that is, we both reflect society and at times we try to drive it…I have a lot of sleepless nights. Not only am I trying to get hits, but we’re trying to as we have since the early days of television and Elvis on Ed Sullivan, you’re trying to find that line. Current events, tragedy are all part of it. I think you can’t be reactionary and you can’t draw a direct linkage, but all of the above is on your mind when you’re making these decisions.”

In other words, and quite reasonably given their status as for-profit companies, network programming won’t change unless the market changes. Fox has more reason than many networks to worry about those shifts because it has an early test of them coming to television on January 21 with The Following. A stylish, but exceedingly sadistic thriller about a serial killer who mentors large numbers of wannabe-emulators that will air at 9 PM, The Following will test audiences tolerances for hyperviolence in network primetime, and could provide useful data about the outer limits of life-and-death stakes as the risk calculus for television storytelling.

John Landgraf, the president and general manager at FX, was most willing to be out-spoken on both causes of gun violence, and the creative challenges of a monotonous focus on violence as a source of stakes. Perhaps the most intellectually curious executive in television, Landgraf said that he’d been reading studies measuring the correlation between violent media and real-life violent behavior. But he said that, particularly as a result of looking at gun homicide statistics in the United States and the United Kingdom, which have considerable overlap in their consumption of America’s biggest violent television hits, “if you want to look at the major difference between England and the United States, it’s access to and availability of guns, and in particular, I would say, it’s a kind of gun, right?…Last time I checked, I think a shotgun or a handgun that has a six round clip are very good weapons, perfectly adequate weapons for self defense in the home.”

And Landgraf noted, in response to a separate question from me about female lead characters on his network, that he was seeing too much of the same in prestige television.

“I think part of what I’m feeling is, as much as I think Breaking Bad is still one of the best shows on television and certainly one of the best shows of this era, I’m getting a little tired of male antiheroes, to tell you the truth,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we put Justified on the air. That’s not really an antihero. That’s a flawed hero. And we’re just trying to find different ways of putting shows on the air that are innovative, that are not clones of what we’ve already done or what other people have already done.” That’s not nannying or moralizing. It’s just goot programming.