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“The Constant Reiteration of Horror and Violence”: A Senate Report on Television and Juvenile Delinquency

While experimental television broadcasts were first transmitted in the 1920s, mass production of television sets did not occur until after World War II. By 1960 the number of sets in the U.S. had surpassed the number of homes. With this relatively swift introduction of television into domestic American life, concern was voiced over the harmful influence that watching television might have on the nation’s children. Earlier in the century, anxieties by both Progressives and traditionalists about harmful effects of movies on youth had led to Congressional hearings regarding Federal censorship. Reformers, however, lacked convincing evidence to support their claims and the motion picture industry developed an effective self-censoring mechanism to maintain control over screen content. Similarly, after Congress held its first hearing in 1952 on the effect of television on children, they chose not to take any action to interfere with the industry, in part because that year the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters adopted a code to regulate broadcast content. A Senate report issued after hearings in 1954 and 1955 on the possible influence of television on juvenile delinquency summarized studies to determine the quantity of criminal and violent acts on television shows accessible for children to view. The report also presented a range of views on whether a “cumulative effect of crime-and-horror television programs” could be harmful to children. Excerpts from the report are followed by additional opinions submitted by the National Association for Better Radio and Television, an advocacy group organized in 1949.


Results of certain studies of programs for children and programs aimed at adults but shown during children’s viewing hours

During the course of its investigation, the subcommittee deemed it appropriate to explore the content of television programs that might receive attention from young people of all ages. The staff surveyed the results of studies previously made with that thought in mind. The staff conducted some surveys of its own for comparison. The results were found to be substantially in agreement. It was found that a large amount of the time during children’s viewing hours is devoted to the subject matter of crime and violence. In several studies of program content, the hours from 5 to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from sign-on to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays are referred to as children’s hours. However, it has been recognized that many juveniles do not limit their television viewing to those hours; and there are many who view television after 7 o’clock in the evening through the week.

National Association of Educational Broadcasters

The National Association of Educational Broadcasters conducted four monitor studies of programs in New York City, New Haven, Los Angeles, and Chicago during the years 1951–53. One of the conclusions of the Chicago study is that—

the general picture is that of a relatively uniform program structure, which shows much less variation that one might expect from city to city or season to season.

The following may be cited as affording some indication of the large volume of acts of crime and violence presented in so-called drama for children.

Study of 85 percent of the total program time of the 7 television stations in New York for the week of January 4–10, 1953, and for a similar week in January 1952 revealed that the number of acts and threats of violence was manifold and had increased substantially between 1952 and 1953. In the 1953 study week a total of 3,421 acts and threats were observed—an increase of 15 percent over 1952. This meant an average of 5.8 acts and threats of violence per hour in 1952, of 6.2 acts and threats of violence per hour in 1953. These figures are, of course, cumulative for the seven stations and obviously no child could be individually exposed to all programs. It was also noted that during the week of January 4–10, 1953, children’s television hours in New York City were twice as saturated with violence as other hours. . . .


Concern expressed for cumulative effect of crime and horror

The cumulative effect of crime-and-horror television programs on the personality development of American children has become a source of mounting concern to parents. Several generalizations can be made concerning many of the programs shown during children’s viewing hours. It was found that life is cheap; death, suffering, sadism, and brutality are subjects of callous indifference and that judges, lawyers, and law-enforcement officers are too often dishonest, incompetent, and stupid. The manner and frequency with which crime through this medium is brought before the eyes and ears of American children indicates inadequate regard for psychological and social consequences. What the subcommittee tried to determine was: Are these presentations a contributing factor in juvenile delinquency?

The subcommittee is aware that no comprehensive, conclusive study has been made of the effects of television on children. On October 1, 1954, a 2-year study of the effects of television on adolescents and young people was initiated by the Nuffield Foundation, Nuffield Lodge, Regents Park, London, N.W. 1. Research teams are being selected of scientists, educators, statisticians, and psychologists. The British Broadcasting Corp. has expressed approval of the study and has also announced that its Audience Research Department is to study the effects of television on adults.

There is reason to believe that television crime programs are potentially much more injurious to children and young people than motion pictures, radio, or comic books. Attending a movie requires money and the physical effort of leaving the home, so an average child’s exposure to films in the theater tends to be limited to a few hours a week. Comic books demand strong imaginary projections. Also, they must be sought out and purchased. But television, available at a flick of a knob and combining visual and audible aspects into a “live” story, has a greater impact upon its child audience.

Views of representatives of the television industry

Several spokesmen for the television industry during the initial hearings testified to the effect that there is nothing wrong with television programs today and all children may view them without harmful effects.

During the hearings on television, Merle S. Jones, vice president in charge of Columbia Broadcasting System-owned stations and general services, cited Doctors Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck’s study, “Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency,” as revealing a major finding:

That the basic causes of delinquency behavior appear to be in faulty child-parent relationships during the first 6 or 8 years of the child’s life. * * * The authors of this monumental study find it unnecessary to discuss the role of mass media as a possible cause of juvenile delinquency.

It should be pointed out, however, that the Gluecks were not concerned with the mass media in their study of delinquency simply because this wasn’t within the focus of their study. When they appeared before the subcommittee in December 1953, Senator Hennings questioned them as to whether they had considered the effects of television directly in connection with their studies. Professor Glueck replied:

Not in the kind of detail * * * that one would like to. The question you raised * * * is a very fundamental one, because you are dealing there with influences that permeate our whole culture.

He went on to say—

* * * we may say that a consistent hammering away influence of an exiting or a salacious kind, day in and day out, day in and day out, must have an erosive effect on the mind of the youth * * *.

Professor Glueck did point out that these influences are always selective, which is in accord with the subcommittee’s belief that these presentations are sought out by those children who are least able to tolerate this kind of material. . . .

James L. Caddigan, director of programming and production, Du Mont Television Network, Allen B. Du Mont Laboratories, Inc., said:

The broadcaster’s responsibility toward children cannot be discharged by the scheduling of a special group of children’s programs. Every moment of every program telecast must be tailored to the highest standards of respect for the family and the home.

Statements of the above nature were prevalent during the hearings. However, the program content as monitored not only by the subcommittee staff but by other research groups reveals the fact that the chasm between what the television people feel is good programming and what is actually telecast is indeed a wide one.

Mrs. Grace M. Johnson, director of continuity acceptance, American Broadcasting Company Television Network said in referring to criticism of radio programs in 1942:

At that time management stated that if it could be proven that these programs were harmful to children, they would be eliminated.

Mrs. Johnson referred to the early movies she attended as a child:

Which included stereotypes of racial and religious groups, and the standard cliff-hanging scenes to be continued the next time. We attended these make-believe shows—excited and exhilarated to fever pitch and then we went home to a cold glass of milk or hot cup of cocoa, depending on the season. Were we to examine these pictures today and compare them with the present well-planned and executed TV programs we would find that the present fare is far superior to the past.

In regard to Mrs. Johnson’s first statement, the subcommittee believes that the proof that the programs are not harmful should be obtained before the programs are shown, not afterward. Parents would never feed their children food which contained possible harmful ingredients. The food must be tested before it is put on the market for public consumption. As to Mrs. Johnson’s second observation, the subcommittee would like to point out that many of the shows viewed by its staff actually were the same serials and westerns she referred to. What is different is the fact that this material is shown not once a week or once a day, but 22 to 28 hours (taking the total for several stations) per day, every day, creating an entertainment diet containing violence in volume unknown to any previous generation of children. . . .

Views of certain other observers as summarized in hearings

Conclusive research is lacking, but there are available opinions on the effects of crime and violence presentations upon children based on opportunities for observation by qualified persons. Such opinions are not in unanimous agreement. The opinions of those expressing fears regarding the effects of such presentations upon children might be summarized in the following terms: First, they point out that violence materials are anxiety and tension producing. The well-adjusted child may well be able to tolerate added tension that would be acquired through viewing television, but the emotionally crippled or damaged youngster may have very little tolerance for this added tension that has been introduced into his life through the television set in the front room. Although it is likely that no well-adjusted child will be badly warped by make-believe violence, on the other hand, it isn’t easy to tell which children are insecure or maladjusted.

The second possible detrimental effect, they point out, is that materials presented, scenes of crime and violence, may well teach techniques of crime. . . .

The third contention was that acts of crime and violence may provide both suggestions and a kind of support for the hostile child, leading him to imitate these acts in expression of his own aggression.

Fourth, it was also feared by some that repeated exposures to scenes of crime and violence may well blunt and callous human sensitivity to, and sympathy for, human suffering and distress—that is, what the effects may be, on a child seeing 5, 6 or 7 people killed each afternoon, in terms of making callous his normal sensitivity to that kind of human destruction, is an unknown quantity. . . .



(Published by National Association for Better Radio and Television, Los Angeles, Calif.)

Television will have an effect on your lives even if you never own a TV set and never see or hear a broadcast. The fatal weakness of all efforts to control the excesses and correct the errors of television in the United States is the attitude of people who think themselves untouched because they themselves never look at inferior programs or never see television at all. But there is no immunity—there is no place to hide. So with the parents whose children are never permitted to watch the sadism and horror of the 150 murders which infest our television screens each week. They imagine themselves safe. But you cannot buy immunity by turning away from what you do not like. The fact is, the 1 child who does not see horror programs lives and will live in the world created by the 50 who do. GILBERT SELDES

Bennett L. Williams, former newspaper reporter (police beat): The crime programs on radio-TV, and the so-called comic strips in our newspapers are creating crime and criminals every day. The police are doing a good job, and then some; but such programs are promoting crime faster than we can increase our police force.

The radio-TV crime programs hold the police up to public ridicule. The police are depicted as a bunch of stumble bums. Naturally our children grow into a contemptuous regard for the police. Those radio and TV poisoned children get the notion that they too are above the law, just like the “private eyes” are, and that they too can shove policemen around. . . .

Walter Lippmann (Los Angeles Times) (The Rise of Teenage Crime): There can be no real doubt, it seems to me, that the movies and television and the comic books are purveying violence and lust to a vicious and intolerable degree.

There can be no real doubt that public exhibitions of sadism tend to excite sadistic desires and to teach the audience how to gratify sadistic desires. Nor can there be any real doubt that there is a close connection between the suddenness of the increase in sadistic crimes and the new vogue of sadism among the mass media of entertainment.

Censorship is no doubt a clumsy and usually a stupid and self-defeating remedy for such evils. But a continual exposure of a generation to the commercial exploitation of the enjoyment of violence and cruelty is one way to corrode the foundations of a civilized society.

For my part, believing as I do in freedom of speech and thought, I see no objection in principle to censorship of the mass entertainment of the young.

Until some more refined way is worked out of controlling this evil thing, the risks to our liberties are, I believe, decidedly less than the risks of unmanageable violence.

Source: Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Television and Juvenile Delinquency, interim report, 1955, Committee Print.