LAST fall, Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois expressed hope that a new network-funded study examining violence on television could provide ''a bench mark for better TV.''
The results of that study were fairly positive for the industry, showing that network series and made-for-TV movies contain relatively little violence overall. Researchers did, however, find room for improvement in children's television.
Now another study has raised the bench mark, giving ammunition to President Clinton and lawmakers who have criticized violence in popular entertainment. A report released last week, the first in a three-year study commissioned by the cable TV industry, finds that televised violence poses substantial risks of ''harmful effects.''
What sets this study apart from the earlier one is not only its scope, but also its focus on the context in which violence occurs. It concludes that most programs on cable and network TV contain violence (typically not explicit or graphic, although 1 of 4 violent interactions involves a handgun). It also says perpetrators of violent acts usually go unpunished, and rarely are negative consequences shown.
A ''violence doesn't pay'' message clearly would be preferable to the ''violence is without consequences'' signal the researchers say broadcasters are sending. That doesn't mean, however, that broadcasters should focus solely on how to portray violence rather than whether to show it. They must strike a better balance. As Senator Simon said, it's time the industry began to curb its appetite for violence, not simply alter it.
President Clinton can help in this regard. He plans to meet with TV executives Feb. 29 to discuss programming concerns with them. One topic of conversation is sure to be the controversial V-chip technology, which will allow parents to block shows rated as violent.
The V-chip gives parents a much-needed tool to shield their children from inappropriate programming, but considerable responsibility lies with the broadcasters. This latest study is strong evidence that broadcasters are airing programs that contain too much violence in a context that may be harmful to viewers, especially children. Clinton should help industry executives recognize that their obligations go beyond the box office.