George Gerbner

George Gerbner on Media Violence, Part II

VTR Date: January 28, 1994

Guest: Gerbner, George


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: George Gerbner
Title: “George Gerbner on Media Violence (II)”
VTR: 1/28/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And when I came to our studio to record this program, just as the last time he was here, I wondered whether the masters of modern mass media just might not have thought of placing a price on the head of my intrepid academic guest and old friend, George Gerbner. For surely no other contemporary media scholar or practitioner has led Americans to give more critical thought to the degree to which mass media content may negatively massage our minds and spirits, legitimating violent and fearful behavior. But as organized and articulate as he is, when Dr. Gerbner was here last time, he raised even more questions about his approach to American mass media than he answered. And today I’m simply going to try to deal with them one by one. Starting with a basic question to my guest. Namely: Whatever purposes or interests may be served by violence in the media, does George Gerbner want anything done about this violence?

GERBNER: Absolutely. First of all, after your introduction, I want a bodyguard.

HEFFNER: Maybe, George, because they certainly feel that you would do them in.

GERBNER: Well, at least if somebody does, you know who it was.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Right. What do you want done about violence in the media?

GERBNER: First we have to ask, “What is violence, and what drives violence?” What I want is to lessen, to reduce the economic forces driving violence. Let me explain. The people in the industry – and most of us are persuaded – that violence, to the extent that, to the great, abundant extent that we experience it in every home, is what the public wants. That is popular, and they are simply supplying, addressing a demand. Well, I just released a study – and you may be the first one to hear it on the air, or our audience – that challenges that conclusion. In fact, we compared over 100 violent programs and an equal number of nonviolent programs, and at the same time, and find that over the past five years, consistently, the nonviolent programs had a higher rating than the violent programs. They are not popular. Every public opinion poll turns out 80, 85 percent of Americans who say they don’t like it. Even broadcasters, a few months ago, Advertising Age had a survey of broadcasters. Seventy-five percent of broadcasters said they don’t like it, they don’t want it.

So then the question arises: Well, what is it, if it’s not popularity? The answer to that question is: It travels well on the global market. Now, American television is not a free market. There are only a handful of buyers. This is called an oligopoly. The purpose for oligopoly or monopoly is two-fold. One is to deny access to competition. And the other is to keep the price that they have to pay low. The price that is paid for production, to a producer of American television programs, is so low that most producers don’t break even on the domestic market. They come up with a deficit. They are forced onto the world market to make a profit. So they can sell it in many countries fairly cheap. And they put their income together from sales in foreign countries, and of course from syndication, domestic, and mostly foreign. That means that they have to begin to plan to produce for the world market a violent … and they’re looking for an ingredient that travels well, that needs no translation, that speaks action in any language, that fits into any culture, and that essentially delivers an audience that’s fairly active to the next commercial in the mood to buy. So it can be violence. This is the most universal commodity that travels well on the world market. But it has to be happy violence. Not violence that is legitimate that shows the tragedy and the pain and the harm and the damage that violence does.

So it’s global marketing formula driven violence. Most programs are not produced for the domestic audience. They’re not produced for the tastes or needs of any country. They’re produced in a standardized, assembly-line-driven form, to the images of these marketing formulas for the global market. So what we need to do, I think, is to help the broadcasters to lessen their dependence on the global market to invest in our television enough so that they can afford to serve our people, and serve the other countries, serve their own people, not be dependent on the cheap, imported product.

HEFFNER: Okay. I do understand that, and you’re most articulate in expressing that. But then the next question is, accepting everything you’ve said: What could we do about it? Or, more importantly, what would you have the broadcaster – or, it’s not just the broadcaster, obviously – what would you have the media mavens do?

GERBNER: Well, that’s like asking: What can we do about our culture or religion? This is a central, cultural, social and increasingly political issue. It has come into the center of the political arena in every country. What do we do about broadcasting, especially television? Who will appoint the director of television creates constitutional crises now in Eastern Europe and Russia. In the United States we haven’t even begun to realize how far back we are in tackling the question of: What does a centralized culture do to maintain a sense of diversity?

HEFFNER: Well, we seem to be insistent upon doing nothing. We seem to be insistent upon saying the materials that you identify in your research are offensive, at least to George Gerbner.


HEFFNER: And as you suggest in your new study, as I understand it, to many people, maybe a majority of people. And you may be right, perhaps, to the station managers themselves. But what do you want to do about it? Do you want to set up a central office that will say, “Nyet”?

GERBNER: I’m coming to that.

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

GERBNER: I’m coming to that. We have another 10, 15 minutes.


GERBNER: So I want to keep you in suspense.

HEFFNER: But I want to argue about it.

GERBNER: I’m going to leave that for the last minute so you can’t argue about it. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) I’m not going to let you do that. Go ahead.

GERBNER: First, let us eliminate what I think we shouldn’t do. This, the government has no role in dictating content. The government has an important role in being concerned about the rush toward concentration, consolidation, and globalization where a handful of conglomerates can control 85, 90 percent of the screens of the world, there is something wrong. What’s happened to our antitrust enforcement? What happened to the divorcement of production from distribution in the motion pictures? That whole trend has been reversed. And it seems to me that if our antitrust people, looking at the cultural trends that are going on, can’t even say that they’re asleep at the switch. They woke up dead years ago. There’s no concern. One exemption after another. There is Time Warner, Paramount merger. The Bell Atlantic and BCI combination. These are huge global conglomerates that are moving toward total control of the culture.

HEFFNER: George, are you …

GERBNER: Let us slow that down. I don’t think that we can resist the pressure of technology, which is itself concentrating, which itself is converging. But I think it’s a new problem. And the question is how to maintain, with maybe increased efficiency, how to maintain a sense of diversity and how to maintain alternatives. Here, I think that what we have to do is to simply alert our own people, our own citizens, to act as citizens, not only as consumers. There’s a great difference. A consumer is led into a cafeteria and told, “These are the things that you can choose from.” A citizen asks the question, “Is this the kind of cafeteria I want?”
HEFFNER: And when the citizen says no, then what?

GERBNER: When the citizen says no, then the citizens have to organize. We are launching a coalition of community groups, of citizen groups, of women’s groups, of minority groups, of professional groups, of health-related groups, of labor groups. Groups that feel that they are not being served, that not being adequately served. They’re being slighted. That these global marketing formulas are imposed on creative people. This is why the guilds and the unions in the media and entertainment business are very much interested in our movement. Because they’re losing jobs for every merger and every conglomeration. They are losing alternative forms of independent production. So this is a citizen’s movement. It is called the Cultural Environment Movement. You can’t even talk about media anymore. “Media,” to me, is still a plural noun. It implies plurality. We’re going out of the plurality situation into almost total control. So what this organization, or what this coalition will try to do is to say we need to invest more and more democratically in our cultural production. We need to halt the trend toward monopoly, or at least institute some way of diversifying and of supporting alternative production of supporting independents which are going out of business.

Now, how can this be done? This is a question of resources. Should we subsidize? The answer to that is: we are subsidizing. We are subsidizing broadcasting in the conceivable most undemocratic way. By hidden taxation without representation, imposed on everyone who buys product. A certain amount is added to the price of the product. It is turned over to the advertiser, who in turn hands it over to the broadcaster. And the reason they can do it is that advertising is a tax-deductible business expense. As many billions of dollars out of the public treasury to support private broadcasting all of which, which is not accountable to the public, which is accountable only to stockholders, and over which the taxpayer has no representation. It’s taxation without representation. So I say that’s okay, but that should not run the whole culture. Let us do what every other democratic country has done. Let us maybe have an addition to theater admissions, to the purchase of tapes, let us generate money from the users, not just from everybody who doesn’t even use the service, but from the users to finance or at least to provide advances to independent production so that that can be paid back from their income. Let us channel some resources so that the broadcasters can afford to address the tastes and the needs of domestic audiences and of specific groups within domestic audiences.

HEFFNER: George, look, I don’t want to take away anything from what I’m afraid I consider a little bit of mythology here. I’ve just spent almost 20 years, by the time I’ve spent 20 years, I will have left the position as chairman of the board of the film rating system. I know for a fact, George, because I’ve seen it for 20 years, that the notion that the noble independent who’ll provide us with nonviolent, nonextreme, nonexcessive films, while those brutes in the big companies do the opposite, is just nonsense. Where do you get the notion? In broadcasting there was always the idea that somehow or other if we limited the number of hours that the networks could program and we threw those times open to the noble independents they would produce wonderful, wonderful things. Well, we got gameshows and gameshows and gameshows. And where, what’s the basis for your …
GERBNER: And tabloid and reality shows and all that.

HEFFNER: So what’s the notion, where do you get this notion that emphasizing developing funds for independents will somehow or another make for a programming nirvana?

GERBNER: I don’t think it’s a programming nirvana, and I don’t think there is any panacea. I don’t think there’s any quick fix. The question is: Which direction are we going? Now, I agree that the past history of what is called “prime time access,” which is a certain amount of time in the evening that is programmed by independents and not the networks, probably is going out the window too, did not result in any great improvement. The reason is …

HEFFNER: That’s putting it very mildly, George.

GERBNER: Very mildly, yes. The reason is that as long as the financial rewards come from the same source, namely from advertising, as long as a culture is run by the demands of sales, we are the only country in the world that is almost totally relegated to that, the independents will have to program something very similar, often even more exploitive, than what the big networks can do, can afford to be a little more diversified. So what we need to change is the way in which they earned an income. What you need to change is, as again, every other democratic country has done, is to say, “You program for domestic audiences, you program for audiences of special tastes, for women, sometimes for minorities, and you program a greater diversity.” That is still, I think, the only direction we can go. Otherwise you’d be imposing your blueprint or my blueprint, which may be no better, or even though we may like it, may be no better than the blueprint that is being imposed by the marketing formula.

HEFFNER: Of course, if the people who make and distribute films and the people who make and distribute television were to understand thoroughly – and in fact, you said this last time on the program – understand what you really are advocating, well, they might not have a hit squad out after you. They might embrace you more. Because what you’re saying, change the economic basis of contemporary, profit-driven American media. When they think that what you’re saying is, “Do something about their product and do it now.” That’s why I asked you to begin this program, “George Gerbner, what would you do about this violence that you deplore?”

GERBNER: Yes, change the economic imperative that drives violence, which is global marketing, which is a formula that is imposed on the creative people and foisted on the children of the world despite the fact that audiences do not like it in any country.

HEFFNER: But you know, you’ve said so often, you’ve written so often that somehow or other there are those noble, creative people like somewhat the noble independents who are just waiting to be freed from the incubus, the change imposed upon them by these giant economic structure. You are, wonderfully so, the epitome of an economic determinist. And I admire your thinking along those lines. But I think there are going to be an awful lot of people who are going to say, “What are we going to do tonight? What do we do when our kids turn on the set, or our kids go to the movies?” I don’t want to make this something that has to do only with television and not with film. You know, you’ve been taken …

GERBNER: Just a minute. You talk about “noble independents.” That’s your words. I never said. I don’t think that nobility has anything to do with it. I think there are many noble people in big broadcasting and in big motion pictures. You change the incentive, you’re going to change the kind of production …

HEFFNER: Because you’re going to remove the overseas market as a major consideration.

GERBNER: Not remove. Not remove. Not remove. I think the overseas market is important. I think people in every country should be free to choose what they want. What is happening now is that we are dumping our product. I spoke to Mr. Valenti yesterday. He didn’t like what I was saying. But we had a nice conversation. I met him at a meeting. He was, of course, advancing our ability – and he doesn’t call it “dumping,” but many other people do – we’re dumping our product, especially in television programs, which are bought by the dozen, by the hundreds, on countries whose governments and whose entrepreneurs find it much cheaper than to invest in their own culture.

HEFFNER: I would think that Jack would have embraced you if he understood what it is that you’re saying, that he would embrace Herb Schiller, who has always written about cultural imperialism. But when you have said, “The notion of parental control,” talking about what the media people say, “Look, you’re talking about what the kids do. What the kids do is a function of what their parents permit them to do.” That’s what they say. And then you respond to that by saying, “The notion of parental control is an upper-class conceit.” And I think that’s a beautiful phrase.

GERBNER: I said, “Upper-middle-class conceit.”

HEFFNER: “Upper middle-class conceit.”

“Passing the buck to parents is the greatest cop-out of this century, or of this industry,” you said. Now, we once spoke about this. And you explained that you weren’t really talking about the rating system in movies or anything like that. You’re talking about this generalized notion that people can keep their kids from turning on the television signal. And then you say, “But the parents aren’t home.” And the fact of oncoming 21st Century American society is that we have a, for all practical purposes, a parentless population of children. Doesn’t that lead you to believe that therefore there must be controls? That if the control doesn’t come from parents it must come from some other source?

GERBNER: We have controls. We have a de facto censorship now.
HEFFNER: The economic factor.

GERBNER: The economic factor, the political factor, the ideological factor. We have controls right now. Television or motion pictures don’t grow on trees. They’re all a highly controlled industry. Controlled by the market.

HEFFNER: Ideologically so?

GERBNER: Of course, ideologically very much so.

HEFFNER: How so?

GERBNER: Well, there’s no ideological diversity in television. There’s a little bit in motion pictures, but not a big-time production for the world market. Economic controls always imply ideological controls. How many television programs or motion pictures do you have advocating communism or fascism or religious ideologies? None. There is no plurality in ideological …

Well, let’s set aside for a moment, so as to address your question, let’s set aside the tough, long, necessary task of making our system more responsive and more democratic, which it is not. It’s going to take time. It seems impossible because every culture conspires to make structural change seem impossible to their people. So if it seems impossible it might even be worth doing. Let’s set aside for a moment and say, well, now what can a parent do right now. What can a citizen do right now given circumstances as they are? As you pointed out, and as we discussed last time, at least one-third of our children come home to an empty house. Ratings, advisories, I think, are useful, but there are only very few people who observe them, who want them. For them they’re extremely helpful, they’re extremely useful. But by themselves they’re not the solution to the problem. For those who can afford to do it, parents should watch with their children, not use television as a reward or punishment. That simply teaches indiscriminate viewing. Watch enough with their children so they have some basis, they have some credibility. And say, “You know, there’s a different way of looking at this.” Just offer an alternative perspective. Our research has found that the most debilitating part of growing up with television is that it makes the assumptions built into the world that it presents seem as the only ones, as the only perspective on life. So providing an alternative confers a great analytical, critical factor that immunizes children.

HEFFNER: But George, you’re again talking about the upper middle class.

GERBNER: I’m … the wealthy upper middle class, yes.

HEFFNER: Now, in three minutes that we have left. You said you’d save it for the end.

GERBNER: Well, the responsibility for a culture that comes into the home is, to a very large extent, with the producer. We have tried to reform the producers by preaching, by teaching, media literacy is a good movement. By regulation. It doesn’t work. As long as the economic incentives remain what they are, it’s not going to work. We have to change the rewards of the system. We have to invest in the socialization of our children at least as much as we invest in our schools, in our roads, in our hospitals, in our armies. We have to raise the social, cultural, human importance of television programming and motion picture production to the level where it becomes a necessity to have a diverse, to have not only independent production, but to make it possible for the big producers not to be totally or as much dependent on the global market, not be as much dependent on mass-produced, formula-driven programming, to be able to afford to do what we want our children to live in for the next …

HEFFNER: And tonight, George? Tonight? What are we going to do in reference to our children tonight?

GERBNER: Tonight we are stuck. Tonight we are stuck with what we have. We can draw in the Cultural Environment Movement, we can read a good book, we can look at our programs and see is there anything on this week worth watching.

HEFFNER: That’s the upper-middle-class conceit.

GERBNER: That’s right. And tonight you’re not going to abolish unemployment. Tonight you’re not going to do anything about the civil war raging in our cities called war against crime, war against drugs. Tonight we are not going to do anything about the poverty and the hopelessness that is tearing us apart, the mistrust, the alienation, the breaking down of the civility, of hospitality to strangers. These are all culturally-driven, deeply embedded patterns of behavior. There are no quick fixes. Tonight we should plan for tomorrow.

HEFFNER: You don’t mean tomorrow, George. You mean tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

GERBNER: No. No. It has to begin tonight and tomorrow. This is a low road. I’m speaking to many groups. People are organizing. We have regional meetings. We have meetings of health-related people, religious people. We are getting organized for the long haul.

HEFFNER: Do you think Senator Simon and others are going to accept that long, long haul?

GERBNER: They are going to accept it when we can show that we are a constituency to deliver to them. Otherwise, why should a politician, no matter what they think, accept anything unless they feel that there is a fertile field that they can address and sometimes exploit?

HEFFNER: Well, when my friend Floyd Abrams were here – and this is, I’ve got to end the program now, you know – he said, “There is no clear and present danger.” And you seem to be saying, “Well, whether there is or isn’t, we can’t do anything in the present.” And boy, that is a kick in the kimono all right.

GERBNER: Well, we can do selective viewing. I mean, we don’t have to be prisoners of whatever we do.

HEFFNER: It’s those upper-middle class people.

George Gerbner, thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

GERBNER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”