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Timeline: TV, regulation and broadcast violence

Compiled by Bill Kenworthy
First Amendment Center Online

Jan. 13, 1928
E.F.W. Alexanderson, a scientist for General Electric, makes the first successful television broadcast from experimental station WGY-TV in his home to the homes of four GE executives in Schenectady, N.Y. Soon thereafter, on Feb. 25, 1928, Charles Jenkins Laboratories obtains the first television license from the Federal Radio Commission. Jenkins Television Corp. opens the first TV broadcasting station in the U.S., called W3XK, which goes on air July 2.

Dec. 7, 1930
First television commercial, broadcast on W1XAY in Lexington, Mass., by Charles Jenkins, who is quickly fined by the Federal Radio Commission.

July 1, 1941
First day of “modern” commercial television. FCC grants the first commercial TV license to WNBT-TV, New York, making it the first commercial television station in the United States. This date marks the first time that commercials and sponsors are allowed during television programs.

May 25, 1944
First instance of television censorship. NBC turns off the sound on a performance of “We’re Having a Baby” by Eddie Cantor because, according to NBC representatives, the song contains “objectionable” lyrics.

May 12, 1952
First call for a government hearing to study “the extent to which the radio and television programs currently available … contain immoral and otherwise offensive matter, or place improper emphasis on crime, violence and corruption” (House Resolution 278). The resolution, introduced by Arkansas Rep. E.C. Gathing, gives the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce’s FCC Subcommittee the authority to conduct the study. Resulting hearings lack focus and fail to generate anything of substance, but do start the trend of government hearings.

June 1954 through April 1955
Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency holds a number of hearings on television and its effect on delinquency. The 1954 hearings, chaired by Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., are the first to raise a possible link between TV violence and juvenile crime.

May 9, 1961
New FCC Chairman Newton Minow makes a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters in which he characterizes television as “a vast wasteland.” This speech helps push the FCC and the issue of television violence back into the public eye.

June 10, 1968
Five days after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson signs Executive Order 11412 establishing the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. In remarks during the signing ceremony, Johnson asks the commission to consider questions including: “Are the seeds of violence nurtured through the public’s airwaves, the screens of neighborhood theatres, the news media, and other forms of communication from our leaders that reach the family and reach the young?” In its final report the commission says, “It is reasonable to conclude that a constant diet of violent behavior on television has an adverse effect on human character and attitudes. Violence on television encourages violent forms of behavior, and fosters moral and social values about violence that are unacceptable in a civilized society.”

March 1972
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, appointed by Surgeon General Dr. William Stewart at the request of Sen. John O. Pastore, D-R.I., issues its report from its one-year study “to state the present scientific knowledge about the effects of entertainment television on children’s behavior.” The committee finds “a preliminary and tentative indication of a causal relation between viewing violence on television and aggressive behavior; an indication that any such causal relation operates only on some children (who are predisposed to be aggressive); and an indication that it operates only in some environmental contexts.”

Feb. 19, 1975
The FCC, in response to congressional directives, releases “Report on the Broadcast of Violent, Indecent, and Obscene Material.” The FCC acknowledges that it has “received substantial evidence that parents, Congress, and others are deeply concerned” about violence on television and its effect on children. However, it states that “industry self-regulation is preferable to the adoption of rigid government standards” in part because of constitutional issues.

April 1975
The National Association of Broadcasters and the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, adopt the “family viewing” hour in an attempt to reduce the amount of violent and sexually oriented material on TV. In 1976 a federal court in California declares the family viewing hour unconstitutional because of FCC pressure on the networks to adopt the policy. (Although the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacates that ruling in 1979 on jurisdictional grounds, the family viewing hour is never reinstated.)

October 1977
“Involuntary subliminal television intoxication” is used as the basis for the insanity defense of 15-year-old murder defendant Ronny Zamora. Ellis Rubin, Zamora’s lawyer, claims his client was electronically “brainwashed” and did not realize he was committing murder, owing to his prolonged exposure to violent television shows. Zamora is convicted on all counts.

Three different hearings are held throughout the decade dealing specifically with sex and violence on TV. These subjects also come up in four other separate hearings on related topics.

Dec. 7, 1981
State appeals court ruling in Olivia N. v. NBC. Olivia N. had sued NBC in 1977 for damages for injuries suffered after a group of minors “artificially raped” her with a bottle. Olivia N. alleged that her attackers had viewed and discussed the “artificial rape” scene in a network broadcast of the movie “Born Innocent,” and that the film caused them to commit their act. After the originally filed case was improperly dismissed by the trial judge, a new trial was ordered, but the case was again dismissed. On appeal, the second dismissal is upheld by the California District Court of Appeals, which finds that the movie “did not advocate or encourage violent … acts.”

Several published reports specifically state or caution that television violence contributes to actual violence. The publishing institutions include the National Institute of Mental Health, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Family Violence, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Critics identify many flaws in the studies, noting that the studies do not conclusively establish a causal link between TV violence and actual violence. Seven separate hearings are held throughout the decade concerning violence on TV.

1990 - 1993
The Television Program Improvement Act is the first legislation dealing with TV violence to be signed into law, on Dec. 1, 1990. The law gives the TV networks a three-year exemption from the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, allowing them to hold joint discussions for the sole purpose of “developing and disseminating voluntary guidelines to alleviate the negative impact of” TV violence. In 1992 the networks send a letter to Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., the sponsor of the Television Program Improvement Act, saying they will follow uniform guidelines on depicting violence in their programs and will hold an industrywide conference on violence. In August 1993, two months before the exemption expires, Simon warns the TV industry to act to lessen TV violence or face congressional action. No substantial action is taken by either side.

June 30, 1993
In the midst of another round of congressional hearings about violence on TV, executives from the major television networks announce plans to include a warning on programs that broadcasters judge to be too violent for children: “Due to some violent content, parental discretion is advised.”

Feb. 8, 1996
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is signed into law. It mandates that the broadcasting industry develop a rating system to identify sexual, violent or other indecent programming. It also requires TV manufacturers to install the V-chip in all newly manufactured sets by Jan. 1, 2000.

Jan. 1, 1997
In response to the Telecommunications Act mandate, broadcasters implement the “TV Parental Guidelines.” These constitute a program-rating system based on the age-appropriateness of different types of shows, rather than on specific contents of programs.

Sept. 11, 2000
The Federal Trade Commission releases a report, “Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children.” In Appendix A, “A Review of Research on the Impact of Violence in Entertainment Media,” the FTC  says: “Most researchers and investigators agree that exposure to media violence alone does not cause a child to commit a violent act, and that it is not the sole, or even necessarily the most important, factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence.”

Jan. 14, 2003
Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., introduces S. 161, the Children’s Protection from Violent Programming Act. The bill directs the FCC to review and assess the effectiveness of the rating and blocking measures in use. The bill also authorizes the FCC, if it finds the measures ineffective, to prohibit violent programming during the hours when children would make up a substantial part of the viewing audience. The bill dies in committee but is tacked on to S. 2056, the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004. This bill makes it out of committee and is placed on the Senate legislative calendar, but no further action is taken.

March 5, 2004
Thirty-nine members of the House of Representatives send a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell asking the FCC to initiate a “notice of inquiry” on the issue of television violence and its impact on children.

March 14, 2005
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduces S. 616, the Indecent and Gratuitous and Excessively Violent Programming Control Act of 2005. The bill would allow the FCC to regulate, for the first time, cable and satellite television and also allow it to regulate violence on regular broadcast television. The measure is referred to the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where it dies.

April 12, 2007
The Federal Trade Commission releases its fifth follow-up report on "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children." Though the FTC is mainly concerned with movies, music and electronic games, its findings on violence in media are relevant. The FTC concludes, “Given important First Amendment considerations, the Commission supports private sector initiatives by industry and individual companies” to control minors’ access to media with violent content. Also in Appendix A of the report, “The First Amendment and Government Efforts to Regulate Entertainment Media Products with Violent Content,” the FTC says efforts to restrict minors’ access to violent media have not survived constitutional scrutiny, that the courts have uniformly found that violent content is protected by the First Amendment and that “the asserted government interest of protecting minors [is] not supported by compelling evidence of harm.” These findings by the FTC conflict with the FCC's findings in a report released April 25.

April 25, 2007
The FCC releases a report, “In the Matter of Violent Television and Its Impact on Children.” This is the report requested in 2004. Among its conclusions: (1) exposure to violence in the media can increase aggressive behavior in children; (2) although there are constitutional barriers to regulating violent programming, the courts have said indecent programming can be regulated (in other words, if violence could be equated with indecency, then violent content could be regulated); (3) current “fixes” — i.e., the V-chip and the rating system — are not effective in protecting children from violent programming. The report sums up by saying that “Congress could implement a time channeling solution … and/or mandate some other form of consumer choice in obtaining video programming.”

June 26, 2007
The Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on issues related to the impact of violent television programming on children, including issues raised by the latest FCC report.


Government must act to curb TV violence, says Sen. Rockefeller
Fellow senator expresses concern about free-speech implications of such a measure, possibility that Congress might pass law that would be invalidated in court. 06.27.07

Online symposium: TV violence & the FCC

Timeline: broadcast decency

TV violence: more program information would be better than regulation
By Gene Policinski Just as with judging sexual imagery and utterances that may be indecent, there are practical problems in defining what depictions of violence cross the line. 05.06.07

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