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Critics Gain Momentum To Terminate Violence

Congress considers action after deaths are linked to a college football movie and a cartoon about out-of-control teenagers

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WHEN Michael Shingledecker lay down on a two-lane highway last Saturday night, the Pennsylvania teenager was imitating a scene from the film ``The Program'' in which beefy but witless football players lie in street traffic to prove their bravery.

He ended up losing his life - and becoming another tragic case study in the enduring debate over media portrayals of violence.

Coming in the wake of a boy who allegedly burned down his house after watching the MTV cartoon ``Beavis and Butt-head,'' the incident has provided fodder for critics who charge that the TV and movie industries encourage violent behavior in the real world.

This week, a United States Senate committee took up the challenge with a ``showdown'' hearing on TV violence. All TV networks and the Motion Picture Association of America cite First Amendment grounds to oppose any legislation to regulate the content of either TV or movie programs.

But staff members say the hearing - at which Attorney General Janet Reno strongly condemned media violence - could represent a step closer to new content regulations or at least limiting violence on TV to hours children are less likely to watch. Preemptive action

Producers are already taking preemptive steps to forestall legislative action. The Walt Disney Company, which produced ``The Program,'' this week deleted the scene that inspired Mr. Shingledecker and a daredevil on Long Island, N.Y., who also died.

MTV, the rock-music channel, decided to move its popular ``Beavis and Butt-head'' cartoon, which depicts the adventures of two rollicking and generally lawless teenagers, to a later time slot. The producers also pledged not to depict arson anymore - a move that comes two weeks after a five-year-old boy in Ohio set a fire that killed his two-year-old-sister, apparently in emulation of the cartoon characters.

``The whole Disney episode is a wake-up call for those people who say what we see in the media doesn't influence anybody,'' says film reviewer Michael Medved, a critic of media violence.

``Disney's prompt response on this is really exemplary,'' he adds. ``It's not fair to blame [``The Program's''] writer-director David Ward. There are a dozen scenes in films that I've seen this year that I have worried about much more. The irony is that the Disney movie is a flop. Imagine how much more influence a hit movie has.''

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