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Keeping Tally of TV Violence

IMAGINE the following scene: A large truck drives up to your house, and a man in an expensive suit gets out and knocks on your door. He's come to make a proposition. He has a troupe of actors and a lot of dazzling props, and he wants to take over your family room and put on a show for your kids.

The actors will shoot, stab, and beat one another; they will teach your children to solve problems and to settle disputes by killing.

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Is there a parent in this country who would accept that offer? More likely, he or she would call the police. Yet this transaction happens millions of times every day in America. But because it happens through TV, parents have a much harder time guarding their doors.

Parents need help, and the federal government should give them some. Media violence in the nation has reached epidemic proportions. During the anything-goes `80s, prime-time violence tripled, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children, moreover, are the major targets. Last year there were 32 acts of violence per hour on kids' TV - a record.

By the time children finish elementary school, they will have witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of TV violence.

If this is too much, and I think it is, then the question becomes what to do. It is not government's role in this country to tell people what they can watch. Nor should government try to tell broadcasters and sponsors what they can put on TV. But government can and should help parents talk back to the media. That's why I have proposed the Television Violence Report Card Act of 1993, which would require the Federal Communications Commission to issue quarterly reports on the amount of violence on TV, liste d both by the show and by the sponsor.

I can hear the media executives in Manhattan and Los Angeles, claiming there's no evidence that violence on TV is harmful to kids. "I don't think we know enough yet," said one executive recently.

But parents know better. The National Institute of Mental Health and a host of other researchers have confirmed what most parents have observed: There is a connection between what kids see on TV and how they behave.

"I'd be lying if I said that people don't imitate what they see on the screen," said Lawrence Gordon, who produced the 1979 movie, "The Warriors." The movie was recalled because it prompted so much violence on the part of young viewers.

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There seems to be a breakdown in accountability here. But accountability gets diluted when huge corporations speak through the mass media. There is no face-to-face contact. It is all impersonal and anonymous. That is why we have to do a little extra to help families and communities regain their rightful roles as bulwarks of values in our society. We have to restore the law of social causes and effects, the connection between what institutions do and the way society responds to them.

The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year gathering demographic data, census figures and the like, that business advertisers use to target consumers. Now it's time to gather data parents can use to help protect their children.

This is neither censorship nor regulation. It is a market-based solution to the problem of TV violence.

If Americans don't think this violence matters, then it will continue. But if they do care, and send their market message accordingly, then it will change. That's the way a democracy and a market economy are supposed to work.

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